Michael Clayton: A Surprisingly Excellent Film

February 22, 2008

With the Oscars just two weeks days away, it’s way past time to review the last remaining Best Picture nominees: Michael Clayton and Atonement. We’ll start today with Michael Clayton which, as the post title has already given away, is a surprisingly excellent film, a beautiful example of the way elements of different genres can be mixed together in order to create something new and exciting.

In Jacques Derrida’s playful yet obfuscating “The Law of Genre,” JD argues that genre cannot be transcended. last_action_poster.jpgA text, in trying to move outside of its genre, simply changes its definition. A novel that suddenly introduces a play, ala Moby Dick or Exit Ghost, is still a novel, even if the dramatic form appears to be incongruous with the prose of the novel. I bring this up for several reasons. The first is that many movies (and other pieces of literature) play with the “4th wall” and have characters acknowledge their fictionality (the best example of this is Funny Games, Michael Haneke’s magnum opus, whose English language remake is soon to be released. See our coverage of Haneke’s language games, here). Still, this does nothing to change the genre of film. Until such a time when we enter the world of Last Action Hero and moviegoers can enter the movie and film characters can come into our world, film will always remain a film. The other reason that I bring this up is because of this article in Slate, America’s premier online magazine. According to the Slate piece, Michael Clayton is only superficially a thriller. Though it mixes elements from the action genre (quick cuts, car chases, MURDER!) in order to heighten the tension, the movie best succeeds as an indictment of the legal realm. In their words:

beneath the expertly deployed suspense lies something more interesting: an indictment of the mercenary universe of white-shoe law firms and a devastating—and unusually accurate—look at the demoralized lives of the lawyers who work for them.

While Slate considers this the ole switcheroo (a surprising variation, according to Webster’s), I hold Michael Clayton’s admixture of genres to be one of its more interesting developments.

Bourne screenwriter-cum-Clayton director Tony Gilroy used the tools of the action movie to enliven what could have been a dull morality tale. Instead of hearing lots of dialogue about how wrong it is to defend a guilty client, Gilroy makes the client so unbelievably yet ineptly evil that bizarre action sequences follow. Using elements of action movies to spice up the legal “thriller,” (where nothing is regularly thrilling) Gilroy didn’t so much create a new category of film as much as he improved a well-trodden one. Think: Bourne meets Keanu Reeves from The Devil’s Advocate. If this sounds like a recipe for disaster, it probably is, and left in the wrong hands, Michael Clayton would have been no better than your average episode of Ally McBeal. But with a talented collection of actors, and a star-turn by its first time director, Michael Clayton emerges as one of the year’s 4 best movies.

George Clooney does an excellent job as Michael Clayton. It’s subtly an excellent performance. Clooney frequently has to switch gears; he has to make the world think he’s as suave as Danny Ocean, yet he has none of his luck, or ease of life. And all the while he has to carry tremendous amounts of emotional baggage. Tilda Swinton’s character is, in theory, Clayton’s parallel as she’s also been thrust into a position that requires her to maintain a strong outward demeanor no matter how torn up she may be on the inside. The two paths diverge at interesting moments. The movie belongs to Tom Wilkinson, however. Wilkinson gives a fantastic performance that threatens to go over the top, but never does. Instead, his character’s pulsating emotions move the film in unexpected directions. His characters dalliances with insanity (or maybe that should read dalliances with sanity) also introduce the element of the supernatural into the movie. There are some threads in the movie that just defy realistic interpretation. It may only be the psyche that is beyond the natural in this movie, but something has to be. Still, this isn’t so much a problem or a contradiction as much as it adds another level for us to appreciate.

In a non-No Country year Tom Wilkinson would run away with best supporting actor and Clayton would have a good shot at the top slot. As it stands now, Clayton is likely to come home empty-handed. But at least it may help prospective lawyers become more ethical, helping them to refrain from all forms of chicanery.

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