Michael Clayton movie poster
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Michael Clayton movie poster

Michael Clayton Movie Review

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Wow, what a year 2007 has been. And it's only October. Last year, we were scraping bottom well into late November before good movies started cropping up, but 2007 has been gifted with all kinds of really good movies, from comedies (Knocked Up, Hot Fuzz, Superbad) to action (300, The Bourne Ultimatum, Transformers) to dramas (Eastern Promises, Zodiac, Rescue Dawn), and that's only to name a few. Now, we have Michael Clayton, George Clooney's latest drama-thriller.

Written and directed by The Bourne Ultimatum writer Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton does for legal thrillers what the Bourne franchise did for spy flicks - take the genre to a whole new level. It's not that the legal thriller hasn't had its fair share of great successes - several John Grisham adaptations come to mind - but Gilroy's approach is certainly don't-bullshit-and-slowly-build-tension-until-it-bursts. There are some slow sections in Michael Clayton, and those expecting a fast-paced thriller might find themselves falling asleep in the first half, but those of you who have patience and know a good movie when you see it will certainly find something to campaign around. For much of the movie, you don't really know what the title character's job is, but then, when it reaches the amazing and surprisingly quick ending that it has, you realize he's been doing it all along. Michael Clayton is a movie with a few twists, or at least new directions, and a mounting sense that there will be only one winner.

What is Michael Clayton about? Without going into detail, as the movie relies on subtle detail to keep the audience intrigued, it follows a "fixer" (Clooney), a man who is very good at working fast at getting his company, one of the top legal firms in the country, and its clients out of trouble when problems arise. When the firm's top lawyer (Tom Wilkinson) suddenly goes crazy, strips down naked and professes his love for a plaintiff on the wrong side of the table - at a major deposition for a class-action lawsuit that pays for half the company's profits - Michael Clayton finds himself suddenly in a hornet's nest where he has to protect his client's interests and also one of his good friends, the man who went crazy. But as he digs deeper, he realizes that the crazy ravings of his good friend may be more than just ravings, and that their client may go to any length to make sure the truth is never revealed.

Clayton is a well-written, taught thriller that builds suspense continuously over two hours. Watching it late on a Friday night after one of my busiest and most sleep-deprived weeks of the year, I did find myself growing tired through the first half of the film, but never once did I feel that a scene was unnecessary, no matter how small or subtle it appeared to be. I wish I would have watched the movie after a good night's sleep, because even as is I found Michael Clayton to be a refreshingly original (at least compared to what we've seen in a long while) drama. The movie starts off great, putting everything into motion and setting expectations for what's to come, and then just continues from there. For a time, it's bit frustrating, as while everyone keeps alluding to how the title character is so good at what he does, the movie never really explains what he does, why he's so good at it, or even shows why he's so good at it. The movie seems to meander without much focus, but then, halfway through, one scene changes everything and all the little pieces start to crystallize and come together. This is definitely the directorial debut Tony Gilroy must have dreamed about, and one that all first-time directors would kill for.

However, what really makes the movie is the acting. Clooney is great in the lead role and manages his surprisingly complicated character very well. Michael Clayton is a man who is apparently very good at what he does, but has always been one who keeps his head down and stays behind the scene, despite the fact that he longs for something more. He has a kid, who he loves, but he spends most of his free time trying to make up for mistakes made by his druggie brother, who has driven him deep into debt with the wrong people. Clooney works through the movie like a sad giant, though you can see similarities here to Damon's Jason Bourne; he is a man who doesn't know what the end game will be, but continues pushing forward without ever giving up.

Come Oscar time, though, it is unlikely we'll be hearing Clooney's name, but I pray to God that the talk of the town will be about Tom Wilkinson. Wilkinson has found the dream role here, and I will be shocked if a supporting actor nod doesn't come his way. Wilkinson plays a smart but crazy raving lunatic who spouts out metaphoric rants and questions the very being of men. It's hard to describe, but within the first couple of minutes you will be blown away by his performance. Most likely to be overlooked at award season but no less powerful is Tilda Swinton, who continues to show that she is one of the best actresses working today. She has a much smaller and more subtle role than Wilkinson, but you can't take your eyes off her when she's on screen.

Michael Clayton is a bit slow in the first half, but all of it is set up for the tour de force that is the second act. Again, this isn't a movie that relies on standard Hollywood gimmicks, so those looking for such should look elsewhere, but Michael Clayton is the best legal thriller in years and the ending alone makes it all worth it. Michael Clatyon is one of the best movies of the year.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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