“Michael Clayton” opens with quiet layers of dialogue over a sequence of visuals that don’t seem to match it. There’s clear urgency to the sequence, but no apparent purpose. Before long, we settle into it because there’s not much else we can do, and that’s the philosophy that will get you through the movie.
“Clayton” follows the titular character, a corporate law firm’s in-house “fixer,” on a four-day downward spiral as he tries to save his company’s defense of a shady environment company from a manic-depressive senior attorney who begins to lose it when he discovers the truth about the case. Add to the mix an impending merger between two law firms the case could destroy, a large debt Clayton has to pay, problems with a deadbeat brother, a strained relationship with his son and a host of unscrupulous business people, and “Clayton” has a lot of ground to cover.
The film is most loftily about right or wrong and, most important, recognizing the difference between the two. But because “Clayton” has no original ethical core to measure its familiar narrative arc, the study of moral ambiguity and the stream of deceit that runs through the film’s veins never really provoke much beyond the obvious.
The draw of “Clayton,” then, comes from the actor who embodies its protagonist, George Clooney, who elevates the film in more ways than one. Not only will the face of America’s movie-star golden boy bring in a fair amount in ticket sales, Clooney’s real-life persona lends a sense of purpose. Surely a man (Clooney, not Clayton) who jets around trying to save the world and injects Hollywood with a needed dose of class is here for a reason. Watching him, we hardly want to admit that we’re confused. If we don’t get it, it’s us, not the movie, because, after all, Clooney’s the lead, and so there must be a tangible message.
The hard truth: When you’re spending most of your time trying to figure out what the hell is going on in the story, it makes it hard to identify with the character’s journey.
Still, once you’ve filled in some of the blanks – even if it’s Ad-Libs style, where your own answer is as good as screenwriter and director Tony Gilroy’s (he wrote the “Bourne” movies) – you find you’re watching a deft movie that deserves some respect. Clooney is only one of a many actors who give commendable performances (Tom Wilkinson, as the unstable attorney, is totally riveting). And with the exception of a few missteps (the inclusion of three particular horses, for instance), the film moves at a brisk pace that keeps us tense for the next development.
Gilroy’s dialogue deserves particular attention. Between the soliloquy-style rants of Wilkinson’s Arthur and the natural delivery of dry humor and intense resolve from Clooney, we really believe we’ve been transported into the world of big-time New York law. And Robert Elswit, the film’s cinematographer, continues to solidify his reputation as a director’s dream. Where his camera is of consistent movement in P.T. Anderson’s films, or of unobtrusive observation in “Good Night, and Good Luck,” in this film it camera mimics the script’s structure, the weight of the character’s words and the flow of their prospective arcs.
My advice is simple. If you’re going to see this movie – and you should because, if nothing else, it will exercise your brain – don’t sweat the details. This is one of those movies where the “why” is not nearly as important as the “what.”
3.5 out 5 stars.