“I’m not the guy that you kill; I’m the guy that you buy.”
After the following review appeared in the White Plains Times, I got an email from my friend Sharon — I’ll call her “Ms. K” — that spurred more thinking and writing on the subject. I’m including the review, Ms. K’s response, and my replies below. (Thanks, Sharon!)
Think of this intense drama about corporate shenanigans as
the capper to a George Clooney trilogy about duty, ethics and professionalism.
Along with Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck, Michael Clayton is
about careerism and morality. Clooney’s titular protagonist is a high-powered fix-it
man for a
law firm representing a corporate client whose pesticides may be killing
farmers. He’s working to repair the damage done by Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson),
a high-profile litigator who went off his meds and had a nervous breakdown (or
a crisis of conscience) during a deposition. The story stays in standard
conspiracy thriller territory, but what’s remarkable is the way it’s filmed. Writer/director
Tony Gilroy keeps the camera close to all of his actors, especially Clooney and
Tilda Swinton–playing a sweaty, high-powered corporate lawyer with her own
reasons for tracking Edens down–and their intensely nuanced performances reward
the attention. Cinematographer Robert Elswit has a dazzling eye for actors’
faces, and he makes good use of the widescreen frame and the film’s authentic
smart and spooky stuff. The only misstep is a tidy climax–it’s too conventional
an ending for this refreshingly bold, ethically fraught thriller.
MS K: You gonna do a long review for Michael Clayton? I enjoyed it, but felt a little patronized. It took a relatively simple situation and over-complicated it. That worked well in Syriana but not so well here.
After thinking about it, I decided I might not have realized that the movie wasn’t patronizing me, but was “showing, not telling.” George Clooney carried this movie with his physical performance. And I admire the way certain scenes were directed (the horses on the hill, for one).
But where do we see Michael question his own morality? I thought that Arthur’s character development and moral arc were much more interesting than Michael’s — all the drug stuff, that great moment of lucidity when Tom buys all that bread and you question when he’s sane, when he’s not, and if he’s insane at all. Michael Clayton is the detective, piecing together what happened to Wilkinson, and we don’t really see when Clooney realizes he’s a bad janitor.
I found the scene almost laughable near the end when Michael goes to the Sydney Pollack character and says, “What is U North is bad?” Is that really the first time he questions what he’s doing? Does it take a hit on Arthur and an attempted hit on Michael to make him grow a conscience?
I would have liked to see more character development. There was the crazy-brother angle, the failed restaurant, and his relationship with his son. I liked the way they tied his son and the red book to the horses, but I saw all that more as a symbol of him finding his way, not as a reason for why he found his way.
OK, here’s how I see it.
Michael’s crisis of
conscience — the moment when he questions his own morality — is Michael Clayton. Essentially, the whole
movie is about that one thing. The movie begins in medias res; Michael is
called away from a card game to go fix some godawful mess in Westchester.
Because he’s the fixer. The professional. The cleaner. He’s Jean Reno in La Femme Nikita; he’s Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. But he’s sure not acting
Don’t you sense immediately
that something’s wrong? This purported bad-ass, this shaolin monk of loopholes
and legal chicanery, is suggesting that Mr. Obscenely Rich Dude should own up
to his mistake and turn himself in. That he should take responsibility for his
actions. Given the circumstances, this advice seems reasonable — but surely “suck
it up, Chester”
is not the result you’re looking for when Michael Clayton comes to town. What
the hell is he thinking?
Well, you and I have seen
the movie, so presumably we both know what he’s thinking. He’s thinking about
his dead friend Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson, taken down in the year’s best, and
creepiest, murder scene). He’s thinking about an evil woman. (Is Tilda Swinton
giving a dynamite performance in a role that’s an essentially sexist creation?
I wondered about that.) He’s thinking about some sick farmers, about a little
red book, and about human tissue damage. He may be thinking about the very
notion of sanity and insanity in a world as demonstrably corrupt as the one he
inhabits. Probably he’s thinking about money he badly needs — the leash that
ties him to his job. When he stops on that hillside to watch the horses, he’s probably
thinking about his kid, and how Arthur had been functioning in an important way
as a surrogate father.
It’s a small gesture that
saves his life. If he had been on his game, even with a
malfunctioning GPS, surely he never would have pulled over, out there in the
countryside, and left the comfort zone of his car to stand in the grass like a
nincompoop. So there’s Michael Clayton’s redemption, in a nutshell: he
questions his own persona. He takes a moment to regret his sacrifices, and thus
the gods allow him to live.
So, logically and
symbolically, I think that’s the moment you’re looking for. If I had to nail it
down, I’d say it comes precisely during that tracking shot that goes around the
back of Michael’s head — subjective camerawork meant to place us in that
character’s shoes. Talk about motivated camera angles — Gilroy and his ace cinematographer, Robert
Elswit, get this exactly right. This lengthy prologue is possibly the best
sustained piece of filmmaking I’ve seen all year. (And Elswit is, as much as anyone, an auteur behind the “trilogy” I advanced in my original review.)
Flashback. Now it’s time to
fill in all the backstory that leads us to the somewhat confusing events
depicted in that opening reel. There’s a lot to talk about, of course, but I
think it’s interesting to note that Michael’s character arc isn’t defined by
self-motivated soul-searching. It’s a gift delivered to him by Arthur Edens, in
full-on Howard Beale mode. Michael may be corrupt, but he’s not blinkered
enough that he fails to see the profound relationship between Arthur’s loss of
control and the amount of noxious corporate behavior he’s been charged with
defending — between madness and knowledge of the awful truth. Michael repeats
the party line that Wilkinson’s just gone off his meds, but there’s an
integrity to the old man that he always respected. He respects it still. And —
especially when Wilkinson is murdered, an offensive transgression that first
inspires Michael to go renegade — that’s where the character’s change comes
What’s important about the
scene where Clayton confronts Marty (Sydney Pollack) is not simply that
Michael’s questioning his own behavior, but that it confirms (for him) the
looking-the-other-way corruption of a man whom he had long considered a friend,
but now starts to look more like the condescending puppetmaster at the other
end of Michael’s marionette strings.
It’s a clever movie — the
legal thriller is just a flimsy but entertainingly distracting framework for a
very meaty character study. That’s why the last scene, where Michael confronts
Karen Crowder (Swinton) upstairs at the New York Hilton, feels too neat by far.
The story needs, an audience demands, this kind of resolution, this level of
victory against the marshalled forces of evil. But this ending (“Aha! And now, Dr. Evil, I
have your confession on tape! The police will be very interested to
hear this little recording, and the wives and children of Pleasantville, America, will
sleep soundly now that your reign of terror is over”) is such a cliché that the
victory rings false. To be honest, part of me was rooting for Michael to take
the bribe money and run — his compromise complete, his claim to the high
ground completely surrendered. That last, brilliant shot of Clooney taking the
longest cab ride of his life is a Kuleshov Experiment waiting to happen. This
would be the pessimistic ending. My preference for it is one reason (among
many) I’m not a wildly successful movie mogul. Anyway, what do you think?
MS K: I did appreciate that everything prior to “4 days earlier” depicts Michael questioning his morality. I suppose I was looking for something else that showed how he got to that line of thought — rather than just watching his friend have a revelation, and then be offed.
Why is he thinking about those sick farmers? I see him get rattled because his friend is acting strange, and more rattled when he sees his friend pay the ultimate price. I see him shocked and troubled and even more broken up when he realizes how expendable he is. But does the case itself ever become personal to him? That’s why I found the scene between him and Marty almost laughable. It’s the first time we hear Michael really talk about the case: “But what if we’re wrong?“
There wasn’t necessarily a moment I was looking for. I was expecting more of an explanation to show why the case became personal to Michael Clayton. Instead, we watched Clayton watching how the case became personal to Arthur Edens.
Clearly it was a good movie. But there was something that rang false to me about Michael Clayton being a fixer for so many years and then walking up to Marty and saying … “What if we’re wrong?”
When the case became personal to Arthur Edens, it became personal to Michael Clayton because he admired the
man so much. I think that’s the way it happens sometimes in the real
world — you lose your moral compass and it doesn’t even occur to you
that you have any bearings left to recover until you see someone you
love and respect muster the outrage that you forgot you had.
I think the movie’s strength is its ambiguity — in the fact
that it allows you to take the journey with him, without feeling that
his experience has been shoehorned into some Screenwriting 101 kind of
character arc. Of course, that means a lot of this has to happen for
you in Clooney’s performance, or it’s not going to work. Read the
expression on his face, for instance, when he comes across the box full
of bound books at the copy shop that Wilkinson had intended to — what?
Distribute on street corners in Tribeca? Leave in stacks at Hudson
News, right next to Vanity Fair and Playboy? Obviously he was up to
something subversive and glorious. Look at Clooney’s face. He’s not
saddened or disturbed. He’s impressed. He’s discovering the fierce soul
that had lain dormant inside that man for too many years of hardcore
litigation and medication.
Don’t forgot that Michael also goes out to the airport and
talks to that poor woman who came all the way to New York expecting to
meet Arthur and raise holy hell. He has to admire her, too, and be
moved by her dedication. She’s not afraid, neither of lawyers nor her
own family. Maybe she’s naive. But I think she stirs something in him,
And of course Clooney owes a lot of money to people who he
thought were friendly but have turned, quickly, menacing. He’s in a
pretty good position to have a revelation about human nature, and the
bad use his own life has been put to.
You keep coming back to the scene where Clooney asks Pollack,
“What if we’re wrong?” and I think I can understand your reaction. It
does seem like an awfully naive question from a guy who’s supposed to
be a Master of the Universe. But I really like the arrogant look that
Pollack gives him in return, like he can hardly believe he’s sharing the room with somebody who just said
that: “Christ, what an asshole.”
Are we arguing, finally, about the value of ambiguity versus
specificity? Maybe the movie would have been better still if the
screenplay had aimed to be more descriptive of exactly what Michael
Clayton was thinking at each stage of his, ahem, journey — or if it had
paid more than lip service to his reputation as a hard-ass. But I keep
coming back to the lyric perfection of that shot, early in the film,
moving behind Clooney’s head as we try and guess what’s going on
inside. And I think I like that better. Cinema is a great mystery, the
human heart even more so, etc. What would you have done differently?
MS. K: Oh, probably nothing. I liked what the movie did overall. And I do like ambiguity. That’s why I was torn on whether or not to bring up the topic. Maybe I’m with you. The ending was too tidy. Maybe it was like watching two different movies. I just felt like I was watching something great that never quite came together, and I don’t know what was missing that would have satisfied me.
I dunno. I mean, I don’t have all the answers. :-)
Nor do I! Then again, I just loaded up the trailer for another look at, er, “key scenes” and found that Michael’s awakening does seem to be spelled out in dialogue. At one point, he tells Arthur, “I’m not the enemy.” And the response comes back, “Then what are you?” If you’re not part of the solution, get busy dyin’. Or something like that. Anyway, it’s a pretty pointed exchange, and during Michael’s final confrontation with Karen, he spells out a pretty devastating critique of the Me that he’s finally decided to move away from. Litigation, bankruptcy, etc, are likely to ensue, of course. It’s such a damn noble way to go — I think that’s what got me. It was so convenient that he got the chance to be so cleanly noble at the end of such a messy freakin’ movie. Maybe that’s what rankles you — as redemptions go, this one may be too good to be true.