MICHAEL CLAYTON - DVD review

Each new viewing brings something fresh and insightful with it.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

Note: In the following joint review, both John and Jason provide their opinions on the movie, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
You've heard it before, but it bears repeating: With his chiseled good looks, dashing charm, and proven acting chops, George Clooney is the closest thing Hollywood has at the moment to an old-fashioned glamorous movie star. He's today's Cary Grant. However, while Grant was primarily known for his roles in lightweight romances, screwball comedies, and Hitchcock thrillers, Clooney has gone a step further, demonstrating his talents in comedy and drama with equal skill. He has alternated parts in projects like "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" "Intolerable Cruelty," and the three "Ocean's" movies with "The Perfect Storm," "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Syriana," "The Good German," and the 2007 film we're discussing here, "Michael Clayton," which may his best starring vehicle to date.

Like Clooney, the movie "Michael Clayton" is a bit of a throwback itself. It harkens back to the courtroom dramas and conspiracy-theory flicks of the 1970s and 80s. It's something of John Grisham meets "Three Days of the Condor," although, as the director points out in his commentary, the movie never goes near a courtroom. And to be certain we know who's at the center of "Michael Clayton," we get the main character's name in the title. To help further understand the nature of the film, consider that its writer and director, Tony Gilroy, also wrote the screenplays for "Dolores Claiborne," "The Devil's Advocate," "Extreme Measures," and the three "Bourne" films.

Clooney stars as a New York City lawyer, Michael Clayton, whose job in a top-drawer, big-bucks law firm is working as a "fixer." His job is far more important to the firm than that of any mere lawyer because he's the go-to guy when clients or other lawyers are in a jam. He's the fellow with all the right connections, all the inside knowledge, all the ways to fix a problem of any kind, legal or otherwise. The irony is that Michael can't fix the problems in his own life. He's divorced, he sees his young son on weekends and in the mornings when he drives him to school, he's in debt to mob-related loan sharks for a failed restaurant that his alcoholic brother Timmy (David Lansbury) talked him into, and he hasn't got the money to pay them back. Amidst these crises, he discovers that his law firm is up to its assets in crooked dealings with a big corporation that is poisoning people with their product and murdering people who get in their way. The question is what Michael will do about all of this when he finds out about it. It's a moral dilemma the likes of which Michael has never faced before.

This is a movie one can enjoy as much or more for its acting as for its plot. Clooney is terrific as the morally compromised lawyer who may have one last chance for redemption. I've heard it said that acting on the big screen requires subtlety, that the simplest glance or the faintest gesture is magnified a hundredfold in widescreen; if so, then Clooney understands the principle. Just study the looks on his face during the movie's closing credits, and you'll see a world of meaning there. Unlike, say, Daniel Day-Lewis, who puts in a fine but one-note performance in another of 2007's talked-about pictures, "There Will Be Blood," Clooney delivers a many faceted and totally nuanced portrait of a man whose life is in turmoil and who must decide how to adapt to it. The changes on him register by the minute.

Then there are two supporting players to die for. Tom Wilkinson plays Arthur Edens, a fellow lawyer at Michael's law firm. For six years he represented a giant chemical conglomerate, United Northfield, against a three-billion-dollar class-action lawsuit brought against them for knowingly selling cancer-causing fertilizers. But Arthur uncovers evidence that U-North actually knew all along that they were poisoning people, and he cannot live with it. He turns sides, starting to build a case against his own client. Wilkinson is brilliant in the role, half nuts, half fox. His opening monologue is both funny and frightening at the same time.

Then there's Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder, a top executive and chief counsel at U-North, who is basically the attack dog for the company. It's wonderful watching her scheme, claw, calculate, and sweat. Literally. Plus, it's always good to see actor/director Sydney Pollack in action, here playing the exasperated boss of Michael's law firm.

"Michael Clayton" doesn't have the easiest plot line to follow, as it tends to skip around in time and place among characters and events, but it's worth being drawn into the story, thinking about it, and figuring it out. And it does all come together beautifully at the finish. Although the narrative builds slowly, it's worth one's concentration. Trust me, it has one of the most satisfying endings of any movie of the year.

John's film rating: 8/10

The Film According to Jason:
"Michael Clayton" is one of the rare movies from Hollywood that requires the audience to think about the action on screen, connect all the story's dots, and draw their own conclusion from the available information. Central to this process is a confrontation between George Clooney's title character and Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) at the end of the film. What, exactly, is Clayton's role in the preceding events? How much was he in on? And why is the story so ambiguous as to confuse the viewer long after the final credits have left the screen?

Michael Clayton is a fixer, a man who is called in when a situation requires a below-the-board solution at his law firm. When the lead litigator on the U-North case--a chemical company accused of not following safety protocols--goes off the rails, Clayton is assigned to clean up the mess. What he finds is a respected attorney compiling evidence of U-North's guilt and a winding conspiracy he never imagined.

Too many films these days connect the dots for the audience by the end of the picture by using a quick montage or another similarly silly technique. Sometimes, a wrap-up is even thrown in for the appearance of being a complex drama when, in reality, we've been following along just fine the entire time. "Michael Clayton" is a breed of movie that asks us to keep up with the story and characters, the twists and turns, even the subplots that don't mean anything in the end. Take, for example, Clayton's family conundrums. One brother is a cop, another is a deadbeat who owes Clayton large sums of money for a bankrupt bar...none of which means anything in the grand scheme of things.

That is the pseudo-brilliance of "Michael Clayton": It strays from the main story, yet it never loses sight of U-North. Every seemingly extraneous storyline feeds into developing Clayton's character. He's morally ambiguous, loyal, good at what he does…and a sucker. Clayton differs from other lawyers in that he trusts too much, especially in the case of his friend and fellow litigator Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson). The expectation is that the lawyer works for the client and doesn't have a moral compass to guide his decisions.

And that's where the problem comes in. Edens does have compassion in his heart. After working for years without a break on the case, he comes around to understanding U-North is wrong. Plain wrong. Which is where all the problems enter into the story. Edens has information, and U-North (and Crowder) find out about it. Clayton is called in...and it spirals out of control.

"Michael Clayton" is a bleak movie, covered in gray, never black or white. It's never upbeat or downbeat; director/writer Tony Gilroy maintains an even tone throughout despite the emotions the material elicits. We know the company is at fault, as do the characters, but at the same time everyone involved knows there is a job to do. A job on which an entire law firm hinges. These lawyers are required to believe in their client; all they have to do is defend them. Lie, if you will.

Even down to the verbal finale between Clayton and Crowder (a scene that shows Clooney at perhaps his best in the entire film), the lies never stop coming. So we're left to wonder who to believe? Do we believe the events we've seen, with no suggestion anything unseemly is happening we don't know about? Or do we believe the finale, telling us how the entire movie went down without so much as montage back up? Ultimately, I don't think it matters much. We have hints of both sides, that Crowder was intimately involved with the entire deal (notice her short scenes in the bathroom) and Clayton was a liar (the context of the conversation). All we do know is what we see at the end of the film. Enough said.

I said earlier that "Michael Clayton" is a rare movie nowadays, and it's true. Nothing about the production--aside from the cast--is flashy. (Clooney, Wilkinson, and Swinton are joined by Sydney Pollack as Clayton's boss.) There is one explosion--seen twice--and no shoot-outs or chase scenes. And no sex. Just the story told by competent people. In its bid to paint the Clayton character as half slime ball/half angel, the script reminds the audience time and again that people aren't who we think they are.

We want ease because simple, sugary films have been fed to us for years, not requiring us to think or deduce but to simply watch. All will be explained in a nice three-minute sequence where the pieces come together like an episode of "Murder, She Wrote." Colonel Mustard with the pipe in the billiard room. "Michael Clayton" isn't that kind of movie. It is a who-done-it in some aspects. We know who done it and, really, why. Or so we think. It's that ending that sticks in the craw. With it, we can't be totally sure of anything, another reason "Michael Clayton" excels. We're supposed to draw our own conclusions and think about the film long after it's been "explained."

I keep coming back to the finale, without giving too much away. There's a wealth of information given to the audience, one part of which we should see coming from a million miles away. Somehow, we don't. The exchange between Clooney and Swinton is so engaging, so engrossing, we are intently focused on their characters, absorbing the performances and words, not bothering to connect the dots while we're in the theater. It's after the strong and silent Clooney performance...the unhinged yet sane Wilkinson turn...the unflattering but resolved Swinton...that we try to make sense of it all. In a way, we're like the characters in the film: running to catch up with a speeding train, hoping to understand what is going on.

"Michael Clayton" is a slow film, so much so it nearly lulls you into a state of "been there, done that." We've see this movie play out as "Erin Brokovich" or even "A Civil Action." Yet the images on screen are still mesmerizing. Because of the ambiguous ending, I can't wholeheartedly recommend the film, but I can come close. It's an unassuming, unpretentious movie, filled with performances that some will label Oscar worthy and a story that demands repeat viewing just to keep the pieces straight.

Jason's film rating: 7/10.

Video:
The Warner Bros. engineers provide a good reproduction of the movie's picture. They use a high bit rate and an anamorphic transfer in replicating the film's original 2.40:1 aspect ratio on disc. This results in as much definition as I remember from a movie theater, with deep black levels setting off the object delineation nicely and highly realistic colors, though intentionally subdued and at times almost leaden. This is, after all, a fairly dark movie. One also notices a few minor, almost indiscernible moiré effects, hardly anything, and a fine print grain that permeates the picture, especially noticeable during the opening poker game and thereafter.

Audio:
James Newton Howard provides a first-class musical track, which the Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics convey nicely in the background, punctuated by all the surrounds. However, this is a relatively quiet film, the silences as telling as the dialogue, so it's important that the dynamic range be wide and the noise level low. They are. What's more, the midrange is exceedingly smooth, the bass is authoritative when necessary, and the highs sparkle.

Extras:
There are only two major bonus items on the disc, but they are worthwhile. The first is an audio commentary by writer/director Tony Gilroy and his brother, film editor John Gilroy. They make a natural team and provide a good deal of inside information, as we might expect. The other bonus is about five minutes of additional scenes, three of them, in non-anamorphic widescreen, with optional commentary. In addition, there are twenty-seven scene selections but no chapter insert; trailers for other WB products at start-up only; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired; and English subtitles for the commentary.

Parting Thoughts:
"Michael Clayton" easily takes one of the top spots on my short list of favorite films of 2007. Each new viewing brings something fresh and insightful with it, not the least being the astute and discerning performances by Clooney, Wilkinson, and Swinton. Maybe it's not a masterpiece, but it's a topflight psychological thriller.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
5
Film Value
8