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I'm the guy you buy

Michael Clayton

One on hand there is nothing new, shocking and shiny about Michael Clayton. On the other hand there is nothing bad about it either. Which I guess goes to show that with a good script, great actors and some nice cinematography you can dispense with that damn obsession with "plot-twists-the-audience-didn't-see-coming (but they actually did)", and just focus on telling a very good story. *sigh* I wish more filmmakers would do just that.

The film stars George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton in a thriller about corruption and other dark sides of human nature, raising a lot of actual moral questions a long the way. Michael Clayton (Clooney)is a fixer for a large law firm, or as he calls himself a janitor. Through a series of interesting editing choices and flashbacks (that manages to avoid being trite) we see Clayton trying to balance being a good father, taking care of his job and trying to find his way through a labyrinth corruption and double dealings. Summarised like this the plot seems rather generic, but where the film succeeds is in making the questions it raises feel true and urgent.

I wanted to watch Michael Clayton largely because it was scripted by Tony Gilroy, whose previous credentials include the man!pain epic that is the Bourne trilogy, as well as Devil's Advocate and the skating film Cutting Edge. (It should also be mentioned that Gilroy helped adapt the guilty pleasure that is Armageddon) But Michael Clayton is more than that, it is also Gilroy's directorial debut.

The man!pain from Bourne is back, only this time it is Clooney who suffers. Though unlike the Bourne films there are no fast paced action sequences or fights of any kind. That said I found several similarities with the Bourne trilogy - there is the individual who through his own choices find himself stuck in a morally problematic situation, people who try to fight big, powerful corporations, and the most predominate of Gilroy's question; the one about identity. For meandering through Micheal Clayton is the question who Michael actually is. People keep asking him, he keeps avoiding the answer. In fact I'd be so bold as to say that the film is just as much about identity and being a moral person, than it is about corporate corruption.

Michael Clayton is quieter and more contemplative than other films Gilroy has scripted, yet it manages to build suspense regardless. I'd say that at least some of this was due to the wonderful script, but also a large part is due the editing. For instance the different ways the characters are edited; in a sense Tilda Swinton's character is Clayton's adversary, and even though they appear together on screen only briefly, the editing creates enough parallels between them.

There are also differences in how these two characters are edited, with a use of cuts and sequences of shots to emphasise their differences. Most of Michael Clayton's scenes are comprised of long, singular shots - usually at face level. This helps create the feeling of someone quiet and contemplative. Tilda Swinton's character on the other hand, is in several scenes shown rehearsing speeches, which are then intercut with her giving the actual speech. In an essence we see her practice and perform at the same time. The editing in these scenes is fast paced, giving a frantic feel - and they also help establish Swinton's character as someone who plans, plots and manipulates. And most importantly very different from the quiet Clayton.

And I've mentioned spoilers in the cut, so I feel like I can talk about the ending of the film here. The very last scene, in fact the credit sequence, shows Michael sitting in a cab. Through a long take that focuses solely on his face with see him struggling with conflicting emotions. Is he happy? Is he sad? Relived? Maybe all of them? The fact is we don't know. I loved this scene for a number or reasons - not only is is stellar acting from Clooney - but I adored that film had guts enough to end with such ambivalence and feeling of bittersweet contemplation.

Out of the Past

I feel there are two staples to a proper film noir. The first is Raymond Chandler’s legendary advice "If in doubt have a guy come in the door with a gun", the other is the importance of the quick reply. The latter is evident in full force in Out of the Past where the battle between scruffy detective Markham/Bailey (Robert Mitchum) and gambler Whit (Kirk Douglas) is a battle of words more than brawn. Basically the last word wins the upper hand, and so a lot of the fun with this film is watching Mitchum and Douglas hurl dialogue and biting remarks at each other. The rest of the fun comes from a femme fatale (Jane Greer) so fatal that Mitchums character at one time quips to the question:
"She can't be all bad. No one is."
"Well, she comes the closest"

I just find it fascinating that the film noir hero is seldom silent or tongue tied in any way. That applies to Mithcum character in this film, but also to the various versions of Marlow in The Big Sleep and Murder My Sweet. In a sense the fast-talking, sarcastic detective is a good detective, which is probably why Dave Bannion in The Big Heat is neither a particularly good detective or a quick talker.

Out of the Past was directed by Jacques Tourneur, who preferred an aesthetic that was nearly expressionistic when it came to the use of light and shadows. The result is a lavish use of dark and light, and most of the scenes seem to take place in a strange twilight world – which suits the films moral gray areas nicely. The plot has more twists than a corkscrew, but good acting and an informative voiceover (it actually tells us something about the person narrating, and doesn’t state the obvious) makes it all hang together. What can I say – I love noirs and Out of the Past is one of my favourites.


Films watched in 2009.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 7th, 2009 08:03 pm (UTC)
One of the most memorable seminars I took at film school was the Film Noir one. We had a lecturer from the US, and we'd watch a movie almost every class. Shame it was only once a week. My favourite, though, has to be Double Indemnity. Oh, and Touch of Evil. They're both so much fun. :D
May. 8th, 2009 12:21 pm (UTC)
Film noir is my catnip. The library here has an awesome collection of film noir, and so I can indulge my habit accordingly. ;)

I haven't seen Double Indemnity in years, but Barbara Stanwyck in that film is in a league of her own. Also IIRC it stars Edward G. Robinson, and he is almost always excellent.

Touch of Evil though, is in my to-be-watched pile. I'm very much looking forward to it.
May. 8th, 2009 06:18 pm (UTC)
Michael Clayton was one of the favourite movies I saw last year. I very much enjoy intelligent thrillers like that and I appreciated that the movie treated me as an adult.
I'm not versed enough to notice things like the editing you mentioned but I'm looking forward to pay attention to the things you mentioned when I watch it again. I bought the DVD only a few weeks ago but as it's often the case it still lies wrapped on the shelf.
As you mention, what makes the movie stand out is it's final scene. It stayed with me for a long time. It just hit the right spot for me, and probably tells you more about me than about the movie. Here's the answer that I gave to your hypothetical questions: Clayton has done the right thing, had a brief moment of satisfaction but then he sits in the taxi, still feels like shit, exhausted and like the loneliest man in the world.

I've become a big fan of Gilroy. I liked the Bourne movies (especially the third one) and I'm looking forward to see Duplicity, maybe next week. I don't know how much you're interested but there has been a good interview with/about Gilroy back when the movie came out. It also sheds some light on earlier movies he was involved with.

And a question in general if I may, is it fair to assume that pretty much everbody who comments in this journal studies film in one way or the other? :)
May. 18th, 2009 01:45 pm (UTC)
I very much relate to your interpretation of the ending, and the more I think about it the more I love how it was all so bittersweet. There is a further dimension as well as well I think- in that Michael has finally acknowledged who he is. Throughout the film he is constantly asked "Who are you" or other people ask "Who is Michael Clayton" - and the answers we are given are always vague or clearly incorrect euphemisms("miracle worker", "janitor"). But in his last talk with Karen Crowder Calyton himself says "I'm the guy you buy", and the reason she falls for his subsequent trap is because that statement is true. Up until now Clayton has been the guy you pay to get things done, and this has largely defined him. So when he turns Karen Crowder in to the police he walks away from being that guy, and without any new way of defining himself. I think that too comes into play at the end there.
That said the brilliance of the ending's ambivalence is that all of these interpretations are true, and I guess that is what gives the film its multifaceted edge.

Furthermore thank you so much for the link to the Gilroy interview. That was enlightening and answered a few questions I've been wondering - for instance why he chose to depart so drastically from the Bourne books. I'm a big fan of the third Bourne film myself - but I also love the first one immensely. I also adore how the films come full circle - both in story and in visuals. It starts with Bourne in the water and ends with him in the water. Beautifully done.

And a question in general if I may, is it fair to assume that pretty much everbody who comments in this journal studies film in one way or the other? :)

*g* I'm not sure everybody has studied film, but a few of them have - and in general they are a media savvy bunch. At least that's my impression. ;)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )