“Michael Clayton”: rolling in the grey zone

michael clayton

It used to be that September and October were the graveyard months for movies that just weren’t going to cut it, that down time when little surprises like Saw had a chance. This year however has been wildly different. I’ve already seen some of my favorite movies of the year since late September. Michael Clayton is one of them.

When I initially saw the trailer I was far from wowed. It’s not that the film looked boring, which it did, but it looked like it followed suit with all of those other self-important star driven lawyer movies in which a big company killing hundreds of people will be taken down by the guy who is a lost cause himself. But trailers are deceptive. When I read that George Clooney originally wanted to direct it, I decided to give it a second chance. The one thing I respect about Clooney is that he’s a story teller first. He’ll put his own ego behind and tell something he thinks is important to tell. I’m glad I gave it a second chance.

Clooney, as Michael Clayton, is playing that lost cause, but he strips everything away so that the star George Clooney is no longer visible. It takes great strength as an actor to play so weak and he latches onto the sense of hopelessness that’s begun to invade Clayton’s life which makes the struggle to break free from what he’s become that much more persuasive. You don’t see heroism in his eyes, but a building anger, anger at the world around him and at himself for allowing himself to have gotten to where he’s at. He’s a complicated character and a breath of fresh air. There’s always something more on his mind than what he’s willing to say and when he finally turns to his son, hoping to inspire him, you feel his anguish and love – the torment, and it’s powerful. Not only that but Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson strip bare to the bone for the audience showing us sides of actors that normally are not seen at the Cineplex.

Writer and Director Tony Gilroy the writer of all three Bourne films, has made it practically impossible for his next film to be better than this. He came across the nugget for this idea while doing research for his lawyer tempted by hell’s flames film, The Devils Advocate. Clayton is a far more mature endeavor than that, but you can see the similarities. Everyone has their price. For Keanu Reeves it was his vanity that drove him to want fame, for Michael Clayton it’s far more complicated and a lot more monetary. When a kid is in desperate need of ten dollars sometimes he’ll lie, cheat, steal to get that ten dollars. Which begs the question what would someone decide to do if they needed a hundred, or a hundred thousand, or six million. The amount doesn’t matter so much as we find out in the film, but the need. Everyone has their price for survival. At one point Michael Clayton literally holds the decision in his hands.

Michael Clayton’s story has a karmic elegance to it. And it’s filmed in a way that heightens those moments, a gray tint fills most of the frames. The camera lingers on actors, letting us see into them. A killing happens with such quiet precision, it’s scarier than anything that Michael Myers could ever deal out. This all heightens the question how much crap can get dumped onto someone before they give up hope of having anything good happen to them and how does that affect the way they see the world and the decisions they make, but also how much crap until something good does happen to them? Everything in the film boils down to a singular moment, that feels far less like luck, and more like a spiritual Buddhist moment. Those moments where you are overwhelmed by what lies in front of you, brought to a peace and calm. I would say it was an easy answer for the film maker if I hadn’t experienced moments like this in my own life, and in the end it felt like the only natural outcome. There are so many great moments in this film that underline the whole, I can’t wait to see it a second time.

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3 Responses to ““Michael Clayton”: rolling in the grey zone”

  1. Paul Martin Says:

    Gee, I’m impressed that you were able to extract so much appreciation from the film and are able to articulate it. I was totally frustrated with the film and didn’t like it at all.

  2. Paul Martin Says:

    I suppose I should add a little more as saying “I didn’t like it at all” doesn’t say much. I found it too contrived how we were drip-fed information, and then everything came together too neat and smugly at the end. I agree with your comments about Clooney. It took me a while to warm to him, but now anything with his name on it piques my interest. I just don’t think this is one of his better films.

  3. Phillip Says:


    I think it’s outstanding that people don’t like the same films I do. I always learn a little more by it.

    I think his next film looks intriguing as well. A comedy that takes place in an old school football world, “Leatherheads”. I’ve read that it feels like a Coen Brothers film.

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