Thursday, February 21, 2008

Legal Unease

Another of 2007's best made its debut on DVD this week. Here's a full review of ...

Michael Clayton (d. Tony Gilroy)

It's not personal. It's just business.

How many times has that been the rationale for the most immoral acts? And its a fascinating rationale because it doesn't seek to explain the whys and wherefores of the sin itself; it's merely a plea for the victim to shut up and take it. Sure, terrible stuff is going to happen here, but that's no reason not to be civil about it.

In Tony Gilroy's magnificent directorial debut Michael Clayton, terrible stuff happens all over the place. Hundreds of people are murdered by a poisonous chemical. Hits are arranged and carried out. Lives are destroyed with a chilling efficiency. And through it all, lawyers are there to make sure no one takes any of it personally.

And then one day, one of them starts taking it very personally indeed. Arthur Edens -- played with wild-eyed clarity by Oscar nominee Tom Wilkinson -- the point man on his law firm's defense of chemical giant U-North, can't take it any more. He has an episode that he insists is not an episode but an epiphany and begins working to tear down the very case he has spent six years building up, much to the horror of U-North representative Karen Crowder. She demands that Edens's law firm rein in this loose cannon and that's where George Clooney as the title character comes in.

Michael Clayton is the guy at the law firm who does all the dirty work, who knows where all the skeletons are squirreled away. And he's the guy who has become so valuable at his self-described "janitor" job, the firm can't afford to promote him. He's a friend of Arthur's and enters the scene with all the right attitudes and all the right advice, only to be knocked for a loop by the extent of Arthur's insanity/clarity. "I am Shiva the God of death," Arthur tells him. Clayton's reply is comically mundane: "Let's get out of Milwaukee. We'll talk about it."

Returning to this film on DVD after seeing it when it opened back in October, I was struck by how brave it is. In this age of the reduced attention span, most movies go to great lengths to "grab" you right out of the gate, often with some ridiculous contrivance. As Michael Clayton opens, Tony Gilroy gives you plenty of time to simply take a look at the title character's life, and it's a life adrift, morally, professionally and just about every other way. It asks the audience for a lot, as only the barest threads of a complex story are revealed. But when it pays off, it pays off big with the most satisfying ending of any movie in a long time.

It's hard to imagine anyone other than Clooney in the title role. He has just the right combination of charm, substance and flaw to flesh out a tricky character. As Karen Crowder, Tilda Swinton uses a brittle, knife's edge iciness that makes it all the more inevitable when she sinks to the moral depths. Tom Wilkinson takes a role that many actors would have hammed up like crazy, and sells it by simply taking Arthur Edens's own advice: "Make believe it's not madness." All are Oscar nominated. All would be worthy winners.

The business of murder is very personal, whether it's carried out by an anonymous conglomerate, or the guy who ambushes you in the hallway. And all the lawyering in the world doesn't make it any more civil.

4 stars

DVD notes -- The Michael Clayton DVD comes to us with only a few extras, which is fine, as long as there's not going to be some overstuffed multi-disc edition released in two months. There's nothing like that currently on the release schedule, but let this film win a few Oscars Sunday night, and watch the marketing department go into hyperdrive. The commentary track provided by director Tony Gilroy and his editor brother John is a fairly engaging affair as these things go, with particular emphasis on the 70s movies that inspired Michael Clayton and the locations in the film, many of which are in the Gilroy's childhood neighborhood. There are also several deleted scenes, all of which are well cut from the film. It's a shame to have lost Jennifer Ehle, but including her character would have made this a less focused story.

DVD Extras rating -- 3 stars

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