Michael Clayton

Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton (dir. Tony Gilroy, 2007).

Sydney Pollack acts in and is one of the producers of Michael Clayton, and director Tony Gilroy has essentially made a Sydney Pollack film: the best one, in fact, since at least The Firm. Better than The Interpreter, and definitely better than the execrable Random Hearts. I'll admit to a high tolerance for Pollack's particular flavor of bland, which I often find soothing in the way TV shows about lawyers are soothing. And in the seventies, at least, he was making genuinely distinguished dramas and comedies for adults. Michael Clayton has some of that quality, and if it's finally not as satisfying as a Three Days of the Condor or an Absence of Malice, it's probably only because the filmic rhetoric of those pictures has run its historical course, and certainly cannot survive beneath the icy technical surface of today's standard thriller template: hi-res crispnesses of color and agitated motion that can only resonate in a post-digital consciousness. When Clayton (George Clooney) walks out on a hill to connect with some horses, it feels like it might be an allusion to The Asphalt Jungle; any similarity, however, dissolves in a blast of Dolby sound and CGI-enhanced flame. More generally, like every other dramatic feature being made these days in Hollywood, the whole thing just looks too much like a BMW ad.

On the level of "message" as well, the movie can't quite sustain the weight it imposes on itself. It's not just that Clayton's ethical transformation is too clean and sudden, but that it can't really be the point. What's interesting about his character is the way he tries to solve the specific problems he is paid to solve. Once he rejects the grounds for his engagement with those problems, he deserts his own story and becomes another, much more comfortable and less interesting figure. If Gilroy had followed through on the logic of who Clayton appears to be at the start of the film, the long close-up shot at the end would be a lot more meaningful. It might have more in common, for example, with the scene it superficially resembles: the end of The Long Good Friday. In that scene, Bob Hoskins' face is a window into the most excruciating weighing of every past action in his life and every consequence yet to come. George Clooney's face is only a window into a set of consequences that have effectively already played out, and that cannot possibly be of any further interest to the audience.

Another way of looking at the problem with Clayton as the main character: that character really ought to be Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). She's ambitious, vulnerable, desperate, cunning, panicked, utterly corrupt: noir on a stick. If we got to concentrate on her for the duration of the narrative, it would be properly excruciating. Clayton, in a less central capacity, could be a good foil to her. But apparently the filmmakers decided that a predictable, "sensitive" character study of a rotten corporate tool who finally sees the light would be more saleable than a harrowing, focused anatomy of irredeemable moral error.

See also Jodi Dean at I Cite, and Kim Dot Dammit.

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