“I’m the guy you buy” – Michael Clayton

-The term “modern masterpiece” is thrown around too much these days. More often than not it is a case of mistaken hyperbole and soon retracted once it comes out on DVD. Five stars become three and before you know it the revisionists are out suggesting it is one of the worst films ever made.

However in the case of Michael Clayton, “modern masterpiece” just doesn’t do it justice, it’s merely understatement. Michael Clayton is a genuine,bonafide classic of cinema. A touching and terrifying film all at once. Bleak, touching, frightening and euphoric, with three main performances that are like caged animals bolting at the leash, just waiting to kick the screen through, grab you by the lapels and teach you a lesson in how to act.

Michael Clayton himself is a man living under a heavy cloud of dripping irony. His job, that he gets very well paid to do, is to caretake situations, to ensure that they go the right way and that everything is done just-so. There can be no mistakes, no room for manoeuvre, he is the man you turn to when the shit goes down and he ensures that . However in his private life, he is a mess. A gambling addict, a divorcee, in debt up to his eyeballs after a gamble on opening a restaurant with his drug- addicted brother, that went south. He has one week to pay back $75,000 to a loan shark so things are closing in on him – fast.

Michael is called upon to handle a situation at work. A colleague, and very good friend, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson) has flipped out. He has spent a good few years representing a shady agricultural products conglomerate (U-North) in a class-action case and has finally had enough. He has fallen in love with one of the plaintiffs and is planning to expose the company. Michael is sent to handle the situation and bring Arthur home. However Michael lets Arthur slip from his grasp and it is from there that the whole mess unravels and Michael’s own life is put into danger.


This is corporate brutality, a clean and sterile world of danger,  shadows and pocketbooks, rather than sending guys to your house heavy handed with axe handles, bean counters worry that you may be jeopardising profits and hire clinical hit-men to take you out of the equation with surgical precision-  Such a scene occurs in Michael Clayton and it chills the blood.

The ring-leader of the brutality is played by the sublime Tilda Swinton, who shakes up a cocktail of unerring coldness and fissured fragility, constantly behaving like she may crack at any moment and leap from a high window. The scenes where she practices speeches endlessly, while running Machiavellian schemes are like watching a lion preen in front of a herd of Zebra.

Tom Wilkinson is a hurricane of righteous indignation monologues, barely stopping for breath and kicking over the scenery in rage. Arthur is a former corporate devastator, who has long been in a medicated, compliant coma, now awoken by his affection for a symbol of purity who he cannot stand to see manipulated. He has been holding the hammer years and now wants to be the shield for the oppressed.

As Michael Clayton, Clooney ignores his usual “cool” and plays Clayton as a wounded soldier, walking around No Man’s Land searching for pieces of his soul. He’s tired of being the fixer, he’s tired of being a crutch for others to depend on, and even though he essentially saves the day at the end, you can see in the wonderful final shot of Clayton sat in the taxi (that he has asked to “just drive”), that it offers no satisfaction. While he has reconciled with his family, and put the brakes on a psychotic corporate monster, he has been tainted by the whole affair and looks at a loss with how to move on, there is also the resignation that this is the only life he can possibly lead, as his previous attempt to do something else ended in massive failure. In many ways Michael is Andy Dufresne crawling through that sewer pipe of shit for miles and miles, but only he doesn’t come out clean.

The biggest star here is the writer and director Tony Gilroy (Nightcrawler). Clayton is beautifully written, with a heady mixture of sharp dialogue and heart. I challenge anyone not to break down during the scene where Michael speaks to his son:

MICHAEL:  Uncle Timmy — and I mean this — on his best day, he was never as tough as you. And I’m not talking about crying or the drugs. I’m talking about in his heart. You understand me? Big Tim…Uncle Boss…all his charming bullshit. And I know you love him. And I know why. But when you see him like this, you don’t have to be afraid, because that’s not how it’s gonna be for you. You’re not gonna be one of those people who goes through life wondering why things keep falling out of the sky around them. You have some real steel in you Henry. Inside. I see it every time I look at you. I see it right now. (he tries to smile) I don’t know where the hell you got it from, but you got it.

At its core Michael Clayton is all about heart,  those who have one, those who do not,  and those who struggle all their lives to find one.

Originally posted 2016-02-05 14:41:23. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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