It’s the season for passion projects from Hollywood directors with such films as James Gray’s We Own the Night, Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James… and Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton gracing the silver screen. Each piece took their respective filmmakers many years to develop and produce and all three somewhat live up to their special billing.
But Michael Clayton remains an oddity amongst this group since it doesn’t display any artistic indulgence or reflection- just plain old classic storytelling. Writer/director Gilroy (who wrote the Jason Bourne films and a host of other mainstream fare), takes a page out of the Soderbergh/Clooney playbook in both style and grace, but the story of Michael Clayton is all his and incredibly personal. The way each character is introduced, established, and moved represents a close attention to character detail, not as Hollywood emotion hounds but as people immersed in this particular story. Gilroy opens with a haunting monologue voiced by Tom Wilkinson’s character Arthur Eden, a high powered attorney who’s just found religion, and his striking words will ring loudly throughout. Arthur and his team have been representing U North, a corrupt farming corporation fighting a class action lawsuit against small scale farmers in Minnesota for the last six years and in a drastic turn of events, shifted his loyalties because of a guilty conscience. Eden’s firm sends in Michael Clayton (Clooney), a janitor of sorts to clean up the media mess and internal strife. U North sends in it’s litigator, the devastating Tilda Swinton, as a counter-punch, and the two take off on separate paths in dealing with the conflicting situation. The table is set for a highly intelligent screenplay to take over, moving from scene to scene with suspenseful fervor, seamlessly incorporating a feeling of ethical mortality throughout.
Michael Clayton isn’t the type of film that’s going to blow you away with flash, just it’s mastery of the medium. The images by Robert Elswitt, the amazing sound design and score, and Gilroy’s perfect execution on all levels (especially his script) make this the best classical Hollywood film in years, and that’s saying something. Michael Clayton might be simple in name, but the mesmerizing process of this man and his morals keeps faith alive for all of us wishing mainstream cinema would captivate more often.