Saturday, October 04, 2008

Movie Notes: Michael Clayton (2007)

Ah, for the days when characters in thrillers had nothing to worry about but Soviet spies! Now, it seems that every other thriller has to do with some nefarious multinational corporation that can hardly be opposed without the main character having to question everything he thought he knew about his society. At least with the Ruskies, we knew that they were the Other. But, if you can't trust corporate America, who can you trust? And, if you the audience want to rage against the machine, remember that these films about the evils of corporate America are made, distributed, and profit giant, multinational corporations. Eeeek!!

I kid, but it's also understandable why corporations are becoming the stock villain in thrillers. Nobody worries much about red spies these days, and even if religious terrorists are terrible, they're not exactly criminal masterminds, are they? The mafia is played out at this point. But the massive corporate Borg seems relatively uncontrollable and involved in all aspects of our lives. Most corporations aren't really that nefarious, of course. But the ones that seem to be lacking any sort of moral compass can still accomplish great evil. The chemical company at the heart of Michael Clayton has certainly wandered far from the path of righteousness. But compare this film to the documentary The World According to Monsanto and see which company, the real or the fictional, seems worse. (Or read this Vanity Fair article)

Anyway, Michael Clayton follows a legal "clean-up" man whose job involves getting the wealthy and well-connected out of any deserved legal trouble. He is the best in this bad business, until a beloved colleague goes into a bipolar spiral and starts attacking his client, a giant chemical company whose agricultural product may cause cancer. Our hero finds himself troubled by a nascent conscience as the company resorts to increasingly vile measures, including murder, to protect its "brand". The usual thriller beats are all here: the hero slowly uncovers the shocking truth about a huge organization, but nobody believes him, he barely trusts himself, and shadowy figures want him eliminated. We've seen this all before.

What puts Michael Clayton a cut above the usual thriller is the stellar writing and performances. Tom Wilkenson, who was also good in Shakespeare in Love, is just superb here as the manic depressive Greek chorus of the film. I was a bit bugged that they relied on the old trope of mental illness as a path to enlightenment, but Wilkenson's performance was believable and sensitive. Claire pointed out that the film was also unique in showing a mentally ill character who is supported and cherished by his colleagues.

Tilda Swinton is also good in everything she does. She hasn't exactly become a household name, in spite of appearing in those Narnia movies; and perhaps she would make a strange cover girl for People Magazine, with her somewhat open marriage and membership in the Communist Party. But she deserves praise for her acting chops, as well as the fact that the vast majority of films she appears in are just good movies. She won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for this film, and I would say that she definitely deserved it. Her portrayal of a business woman slowly becoming undone by fear and her own ethical flaws is itself flawless.

And George Clooney has gone from starring in schlock like Return of the Killer Tomatoes to being one of my favorite actors. It's not just that his performances exhibit the easy workmanship of classic Hollywood; it's that he makes movies for adults in an era in which all of the "tent pole" blockbusters are based on video games and comic books and aimed at 14 year olds. Here he portrays a man coming slowly to the recognition of his own moral decency, and to how he has failed in living an upright life; but finally coming to a sort of redemption. Michael Clayton loses the world and gains his own soul.

No comments: