Sunday, February 24, 2008

Storywh0re's Oscar Series - Michael Clayton (Spoiler Warning)

If I hadn't been reading Dreaming the Dark, by Starhawk, all week, watching Michael Clayton might have been a very different experience. The movie is all about what Starhawk would refer to as “power-over”. It is the power of force, coercion and hierarchy, and the societal institutions which allow some people to prosper at the expense of others; it is also the sense of estrangement between people that allows them to think such systemic suffering is okay.

The film opens in darkness, with just the voice of hotshot attorney Arthur Eden. In the middle of defending an a chemical company in a class-action lawsuit, he's had what appears to be a breakdown, stripping naked during a deposition, and rambling to the plaintiff about offering himself in atonement. The language he uses to explain himself is spiritual. He has had an epiphany, and can no longer be part of the harm that his client, uNorth, is causing. The thing that really struck me is how almost everyone around Arthur immediately tries to pathologize his experience. Only Michael Clayton, the firm's “fixer” who has been called in, even pretends to take his concerns seriously. Go back on your meds, he tells Arthur; if what you've seen is real, it will still be there. Unfortunately, Michael has problems of his own: his brother has just left him high and dry with a failed business, making it difficult for him to resist his gambling addiction.

A lot of the trappings of this movie are quite familiar—the evil company with the harmful product, the innocent victims, the noble whistle-blower, and the character at the crossroads of decision. It does have an immediacy and intimacy that not all such movies have. The characters' personal and professional lives are not neatly separate, all of their problems bleed together.

It drags for a long section in the middle, in part because Michael is catching up to learn what we already know. The black-ops hijinx that we see—especially the faked suicide—weren't convincing to me, even though such things probably happen. On a technical note, this is probably the visually darkest of all the Oscar nominees. The score reminds me of Ambient music, and gives the film a dreamlike quality.

George Clooney does a good job playing a man under extraordinary stress. It was a bigger treat for me, though, to see Tom Wilkinson. This script allowed him a more nuanced role than that of the one-dimensional Carmine Falcone in Batman Begins. (Yes, folks, it's “Six Degrees to Cillian Murphy”.) Tilda Swinton portrays great hidden uncertainty as uNorth's unethical lead counsel, Karen Crowder. That is probably believable, but somewhat cliché. Perhaps a remorseless and arrogant female villian would have been more original, or at least more satisfying.

One thing that bothered me, as someone with friends in recovery, is that Michael loses a form of sobriety at the end, and it is not given near enough importance. It amused me that uNorth outsourced legal services to his firm, and in the end, it is printing outsourced by Arthur that saves the day. Michael is used to presenting limited options to people in tight situations, and then helping them by unconventional means; but he discovers power-within—the power of personal authenticity and interpersonal connection—in time to do the right thing.


Nayana Anthony said...

I just saw Michael Clayton for the third time this weekend, and it was still fantastic.

Welcome to the LAMB!

Evan Derrick said...

I was disappointed in Michael Clayton getting a Best Pic nom (I would have chosen Gone Baby Gone in its place). An expertly made picture, for certain, but I was unable to really connect with any of the characters. I do agree with you that Tom Wilkinson is fantastic. In a year of great supporting performances (too bad he had to be up against Javier), his was one of the top ones.

Rick Olson said...

Thanks for the review. I think that one of the best female performances in years is by Tilda Swinton. It's a ferociously assured performance, where she does the near-impossible task of making us hate her in all her vulnerability. In my book, she more than deserved her Oscar.

Welcome to the Lamb, by the way!