Michael Clayton (2007)

2009 #87
Tony Gilroy | 115 mins | DVD | 15 / R

Michael ClaytonWhen Michael Clayton turned up among the contenders for 2008’s Best Picture Oscar I was a little surprised, because as far as I could recall I’d never heard of it. Then as I read about it a memory came floating back… a memory of a half-page (at best) review in Empire, of a George Clooney film that sounded like it should be good but was, they asserted, only worthy of three stars. As you’ve surely guessed, when I dug out this review it was indeed of Michael Clayton.

It is, I suppose, technically speaking, a thriller. That it’s not particularly thrilling doesn’t have to be a problem — this is the world of class action lawsuits, after all, which take years (decades sometimes, I imagine) of meetings and paperwork and ‘polite’ lawyer-arguing, and often writer-director Tony Gilroy seems to want to depict a moderately realistic version of this world. Clooney’s titular lead, for example, is effectively a middle-management dogsbody, albeit a highly talented one (so we’re told, anyway — the scenes of him doing his job don’t particularly convey this); but he’s certainly not some crusading young hotshot who is just gonna do what’s right, goddammit.

He does have the requisite seriously flawed personal life however, though Gilroy manages to make this feel fairly fresh. The latter is a big part of the film but feels unconnected to the main story… until the end, of course, when it all dovetails. Thankfully not in a cheesy “the bad guys kidnapped the kid” or “I have to do what’s right to get the girl” way, but rather as a means of motivating Clayton into doing… well, what’s right, more or less.

If this sounds more legal drama than legal thriller, it is. Where this comes unstuck is that Gilroy does seem to want it to be a legal thriller, and so uncomfortably squidged into the mix are a pair of surveillance experts/assassins and one of the least-tense car chases in movie history — 15 minutes in we see Clayton’s car blown up, with him safely on a hillside; the rest of the film takes place over the preceding days, eventually reaching that first night, where we see the bomb planted in Clayton’s car, and the assassins following him around trying to get signal to detonate it… and we might care, if we didn’t already know they don’t succeed until he’s wandered off up a hillside to cry over some horses.

The obvious point of comparison is Damages, the excellent TV series that also concerns such high-profile big-business lawsuits, but which pulls off every one of Michael Clayton’s facets with a higher degree of skill, interest and excitement. Company-sponsored murder sits believably in that world, but so does the characters’ personal life dilemmas and the court room (or, rather, pre-court room) battles between attorneys. And Damages sustains it for over 9 hours to boot, replete with cliffhangers and plot twists so far beyond what Clayton’s surprisingly straightforward (once you get down to it) story has to offer that Gilroy isn’t even dreaming of being that good.

Michael Clayton does have good bits, like the supporting parts played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson, or any number of scenes or plot elements scattered around. What it falls short of doing is connecting it all up into a coherent whole: part realist legal/personal drama, part heightened Grisham-esque legal thriller, if it had settled on just one it might’ve been better.

3 out of 5

Michael Clayton is on BBC Two tonight, Friday 4th April 2014, at 11:05pm.

(Originally posted on 5th March 2010.)

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