Lurking behind a somewhat uninspiring title hides the story of a law firm’s fixer who ends up with one too many irons in the fire. We already find Michael Clayton (George Clooney) an underpaid divorcee with a gambling problem and now his drug-addicted brother has left him penniless and without a safety net. Unsurprisingly unhappy with his lot, he had been seeking a way out by buying up a bar but can no longer pay off the unsecured loan on it. As it transpires, the law firm are in a generous mood as they need him more than ever due to their chief litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), suffering a nervous breakdown. Edens had been assisting an agricultural company in their six-year long battle against many plaintiffs, but his discovery that the company has been knowingly selling harmful pesticides to customers causes him to flip out and begin compiling a case for the opposition.
It’s such a brilliant directorial debut from Tony Gilroy that you wonder if Sydney Pollack, being a master director of just these kinds of thrillers and incidentally playing the role of Clayton’s boss, didn’t pass on just a few tips. The opening and ending scenes are bold atmospheric shots of New York. Be it a Manhattan skyline or the back of a taxi cab. They’re mood and scene-setting, creating a sense of despair and foreboding – they flirt with pretentiousness but with the rest of the film so bleak they aren’t out of context. It’s impressive stuff.
The acting performances are quite brilliant, with Clooney as an intense, dark and sincere Clayton, and Tilda Swinton playing a beleaguered legal executive weighing up her job against her morals with a raw, ragged and emotive performance that should win both many plaudits. Wilkinson is an utterly convincing ‘Shiva, god of death’ as his character battles the inner turmoil of his sudden change of circumstance with the joy of a child and the foreboding of a crazed lunatic.
The low-key and surprisingly anodyne script is what lets the film down with several confusing and seemingly unnecessary inclusions to an otherwise simplistic storyline. The legalese is cut down to an acceptable minimum but unfortunately it also allows the gritty edge to blunt somewhat when the viewer should be caring more for it’s characters. These things plus the sudden and somewhat unspectacular ending detract from the impact of all the good earlier build-up work. It’s still a highly watchable and classy thriller but it may not be to everyone’s tastes.
Commissioned by Local Secrets online magazine...