Lots of people have discussed 2007 as one of the greatest years in film history, and certainly the best year of this new century. My issue with that is that most people are only talking about No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood, with Zodiac getting the occasional third slot. Now to be fair, all three of those films are masterpieces, but there’s plenty more to consider if the year is even to be considered as one of the best.
Since we’ve got two more Thursdays left in 2007, I’d like to bring to light some of the more unsung films.
Michael Clayton follows a fixer for a big law firm (George Clooney) who uses his knowledge of legal loopholes to benefit his clients. As the film begins, he’s gambling with cards (we hear about him losing a lot of money recently) before he leaves to visit a client who was involved in a hit-and-run. He leaves the client and drives into the countryside. He gets out of his car in a field and approaches some horses atop a hill nearby. As he reaches them, his car explodes in the background.
This is all in the opening minutes.
We jump back to four days earlier. Michael Clayton is $75,000 in debt because of troubles with a restaurant investment he entered with his brother, who then used the restaurant funds to fuel his drug habits. Michael shoulders the full weight of the debt with a loan shark and is given a week for the return. Meanwhile, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), one of the firm’s top attorneys, has a manic episode during a very important deposition because he stopped taking his medication. Michael bails him out of jail, but Arthur vanishes from their hotel room during the night. We then follow these multiple paths to discover how the film got the beginning, or the end, if you will.
I can’t fathom why Michael Clayton has the perception of being just a generic legal thriller, and my only guess is that not enough people saw it upon initial release and the falling through the cracks led to people believing it was forgettable. That could not be farther from my experience.
Director and screenwriter Tony Gilroy delivers a tense picture that has more in common with The Insider than it actually does with the Bourne series of films, which Gilroy was a writer on. His sense of pacing and dialogue mixed with Robert Elswit’s cinematohraphy, keen on close-ups to grasp the character’s throught process, make for an engaging two hours that don’t feel remotely that long.
Back to the idea of weird perceptions, I get the feeling many people don’t give Clooney the credit he deserves. Sure, he has his films where he only needs to coast off of his charm, but he also has wonderful performances in films like The Descendants and Syriana. His performance in Michael Clayton is among the latter camp, and the final ten minutes or so (no spoilers) are some of his very finest moments in screen acting.
In addition to Wilkinson also doing career-best work, Michael Clayton features supporting turns from Tilda Swinton and Sydney Pollack that only add to the greater product.
The film was nominated for a number of Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, which it lost to No Country For Old Men. Clooney lost Best Actor to Daniel Day-Lewis while Wilkinson lost Best Supporting Actor to Javier Bardem, because obviously, but Tilda Swinton actually won for Best Supporting Actress. Ironically, this might be the one time I didn’t think Swinton deserved every award in the world. She’s great in her small role, but she was nominated against Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There, one of my very favorite films. Gilroy was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay but lost to Diablo Cody and Juno, though I’m not sure that film as aged nearly as well.
Michael Clayton may not be the masterpiece that Paul Thomas Anderson, David Fincher, or the Coen Brothers unleashed ten years ago, but this Gilroy/Clooney pairing is absolutely something that should have your attention. Please give it a look as it is currently streaming on Netflix US.