As Michael Clayton opens, we hear a man, who turns out to be a lawyer, ranting almost incomprehensibly, while we see activity late at night at a law firm. In one of the offices of said firm, while many lawyers work feverishly, a partner at said firm is assuring a reporter on the phone that any talk of a settlement in a major case is completely groundless. Meanwhile, another lawyer sits on a toilet in the bathroom, sweating through the armpits in their shirt. Finally, we see a man playing cards late at night. Later, that man takes a drive to a house to try and solve a problem, after which he starts to drive back. However, he stops his car near a forest, and gets out to look at three horses just standing there. Seconds later, his car blows up.
That last part is, of course, a conventional scene in any thriller these days. But what Tony Gilroy, who wrote the film and also makes his directorial debut here, does in telling the story isn’t as conventional as you’d think. I remember seeing Alec Baldwin give an interview promoting Malice where he said the thing about thrillers was character always played a secondary role to story. What that often means in Hollywood thrillers, however, is the storyline feels mechanical and robotic, each scene feels like someone held a stopwatch on the set to make sure everything is exactly the same, and the characters feel like stick figures, leaving no room for the actors to work. Gilroy obviously wanted to direct this film because he wanted to make sure you understood each of these characters, and he does. As the film goes on, you obviously understand how the characters introduced in the beginning relate to each other, but more importantly, you understand them for themselves.
After the explosion, we cut back to four days earlier. The man who babbled at the beginning of the movie is Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a lawyer for Kenner, Bach & Ledeen who has been representing a conglomerate called U North in a class action suit alleging they produced a weed killer responsible for several deaths. This suit has been dragging on for six years (the firm doesn’t care, as they like to jack up the billable hours), and at one meeting, Edens strips his clothes off and starts making an appeal to Anna (Merritt Wever), one of the plaintiffs. Is this merely a psychotic episode (Edens is on medication because he’s bipolar), or is he, like Howard Beale, mad as hell and not willing to take it anymore? Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a fixer for the law firm (or, as he’s called at various points, a janitor) who cleans up whatever mess needs cleaning. Of course, he has trouble cleaning up his own life – he’s a gambling addict (that card game at the beginning), he barely has enough money to pay for a restaurant he wants to open up with his alcoholic brother, and he barely has enough time for his four year old son Henry (Austin Williams). Nevertheless, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), the partner on the phone, dispatches him to calm down Edens (the firm is also in the middle of a merger) and assure Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the lawyer in the bathroom and the in-house counsel for U North, that Edens is in fact okay.
Except Edens (whom Michael considers his mentor), of course, isn’t okay. He insists to Michael that U North is in fact guilty, and when he’s not babbling, he’s lucid enough to know he can’t be put away (when Michael reminds him he’s not the enemy, Edens retorts, “Then what are you?”). Edens happens to have a document he thinks will make the case for the plaintiffs. When Crowder hears about this, she panics and hires a couple of heavies (Robert Prescott and Terry Serpico) to, as she puts it, contain the situation. How it’s contained eventually leads Michael to wonder, in fact, who he really is and what he stands for.
Again, none of this is new, except in the telling. For starters, normally in a corporate thriller when the corporation is evil, the members of the corporation are meant to either be faceless or wearing neon signs on their heads saying, “Evil!” Crowder is the furthest thing from that. After that scene in the bathroom, which could be interpreted as a panic attack of her own, we see her giving a TV interview about U North. Intercut with the actually interview are scenes where she’s getting dressed and ready while rehearsing the speech she gives, stumbling over key phrases that she eventually gets correct in the actual interview. And in the scene where she meets one of the heavies is instructive – she asks what the usual procedure is (he, in turn, isn’t exactly sure what she wants them to do), and insists she’s doing this while keeping her own mentor, Don Jeffries (Ken Howard), out of any wrongdoing. And her final scene with Michael has her trying to be smooth while actually panicking. This reminds us that in every corporation, someone has to answer to somebody, and fear guides decisions as much as avarice. Even Bach has that note when he tells Michael what will happen if U North pulls their fees from them.
We also get that attention being paid to the nominal heroes of the story. Edens is seen having a long telephone conversation with Anna, and then later Henry (he’s calling for Michael), where he’s both manic and lucid at the same time. With Henry, he spends the whole time talking about the book Henry’s currently obsessed with (why will be important later). We also see Michael’s attitude towards his situation; he’s impatient with Arthur rather than listening to him, he’s concentrating on his job more than his son even when he’s with him (when Henry tries telling him about the book, he just grunts noncommittally), and he’ll do anything to avoid his alcoholic brother Timmy (David Lansbury) while just using his other brother Gene Clayton (Sean Cullen), a cop, for his own means.
Clooney has often talked about his love for movies of the 1970’s, and Gilroy said he and Clooney (who also exec-produced the film, and originally wanted to direct) talked especially about the films of Alan J. Pakula (Klute, All the President's Men) and Sidney Lumet (Network) before making this film. Although that aesthetic is certainly there, I was also reminded of two non-70’s films, Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and The Border (1982). Both involve people who step in shit for a living and seemed resigned to it, but eventually find a line they can’t cross (the difference with the former is Michael’s J.J. Hunsecker isn’t one man, but the corporation). But certainly, one thing the 70’s films Gilroy tries to emulate here have in common with his film is how they take their time with the story. Scenes that would either be dropped completely or cut down are allowed to run full length, because Gilroy wants his characters and story, not just his words, to be allowed to breathe. And the strategy works yet keeps us involved when the thriller part of the story kicks in, particularly when one of the characters is killed – it’s done in a fresh way, yet still familiar and suspenseful enough it leaves a kick.
The performances are all spot on as well. Clooney of course played a similar role in Syriana, and while he’s more glamorous looking here (as he’s have to be – his character in the other film wouldn’t have even been able to approach U North looking like he did), he’s still got the same world-weariness and barely-hidden anger. Wilkinson does manic without overdoing it. And Pollack has become expert at playing shady corporate types. But the revelation here is Swinton. Gilroy admitted in a story on Swinton for Entertainment Weekly that he cast her mostly to give the film indie cred, but was completely unprepared for what she’d bring to the film. Although the accent wavers somewhat, she gets completely inside Karen Crowder, so we can see what motivates her every step of the way, and without ever relying on mannerisms or tics, she shows the panic, and steeliness, from inside. Michael Clayton doesn’t reinvent the wheel cinematically, but by taking its time and telling a good story, it’s a true movie for adults in the best sense of the word.
I know there are people who get angry at the very mention of Wes Anderson (a critic friend of mine thinks he’s dangerous to movies), but I’m still a fan. I think, far from being unfeeling, he has a streak of melancholy running through his movies, but has the ability to combine humor with it. And while I’m usually not one who champions production and costume design over story, character and dialogue, I don’t think he is either – I think his visual worlds complement the characters and story. Finally, I think Anderson is really good at using music in his films. I even liked The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (though I definitely acknowledge it’s flawed), and I really liked The Darjeeling Limited, his latest.
Two Anderson regulars – Owen Wilson (who has appeared in all of Anderson’s films, and co-wrote three of them) and Jason Schwartzman (who appeared in Anderson’s breakout hit Rushmore, as well as his short film Hotel Chevalier) – join with newcomer Adrien Brody, playing the brothers Whitman. Francis (Wilson) has just recovered from a motorcycle accident, and his head is still covered in bandages. Peter (Brody) is about to be a father, much to his dismay, since he’s not sure he loves the mother, whom he’s married to. And Jack (Schwartzman) is still hung up on his ex-girlfriend (the subject of Hotel Chevalier – Natalie Portman, who stars in that movie, cameos in this one).
Francis has gathered them all together, a year after their father died, to go on a train trip through India, where he hopes they will all be able to go on a spiritual journey together (complete with drugs they get in India). However, the issues they have between each other surface. Jack may be hung up on his ex, but that doesn’t stop him from getting involved with a waitress on the train named Rita (Amara Karan). Peter has stolen things from his deceased father, including a pair of subscription sunglasses he wears all the time. And Francis orders the two of them around (ordering food for them) as if they were still little. More importantly, he hasn’t told them the real reason for the trip – he wants the three of them to visit their mother Patricia (Anjelica Huston), who stood them up at their father’s funeral (we flashback to when the three of them were trying to get his car for the funeral), and has been living on a mission in India.
The knocks against Anderson are several: he’s too literary (all three Whitman brothers are carrying baggage belonging to their father, which represents the emotional baggage they all carry), too much a triumph of production design over reality (the train looks especially exotic, and most importantly, that all of that and his “quirkiness” are his substitutes for genuine emotion and feeling. The first two charges can be true at times, though I think most of the time, he’s telling sort of heightened adult fairy tales, where those literary and visual touches don’t feel out of place (The Royal Tenenbaums, which is still my favorite Anderson film, is especially strong in those areas). And I still think there’s genuine feeling in Anderson’s films. That especially comes true in The Darjeeling Limited, when the three of them are thrown off the train and, while trying to find an alternate means of transportation, come across something that changes them. Although it’s been revealed in other reviews, I won’t spoil it here, for it comes as quite a shock. All I’ll say is actor Irfan Khan has been in three of my favorite movies this year (in addition to this, he’s also in The Namesake and A Mighty Heart). Oh, and Anderson doesn’t bring his so-called “quirkiness” to bear on the Indians in the movie. All of them are treated normally instead of with the “otherness” that often happens when English filmmakers deal with a foreign culture (Anderson said he was inspired by Jean Renoir’s great film The River, as well as Satyajit Ray’s films, and it shows).
All the performances are spot-on as well. It’s hard, of course, to look at Wilson and not think of his recent suicide attempt (particularly since his character’s motorcycle accident may not have been entirely accidental), but he doesn’t overdo the pathos, and makes both Francis’ bossiness and conversion believable. Brody keeps his resentments hidden well, but his scene of grief also comes through without being overly maudlin. And Schwartzman, who has been one-note in almost every other movie he’s done outside of Rushmore (the only exception being CQ, by Roman Coppola, who also co-wrote this movie with Anderson and Schwartzman), is restrained and believable here. And the three of them are convincing together as brothers. I, for one, was glad to take the trip along with The Darjeeling Limited.