Michael Clayton (USA 2007, Drama/Thriller), Writer/Director: Tony Gilroy
Rendition (USA/South Africa 2007, Drama/Thriller), Writer: Kelley Sane; Director: Gavin Hood
Michael Clayton is a bit of a case of style over substance. But the style is so good I didn’t mind that very little actually happens and that the pace lags a bit toward the middle.
The film begins with a series of static shots of the offices of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, a top corporate law firm in New York. You realize how often the camera moves in other films these days when you observe the stillness of Michael Clayton’s opening sequence. It’s like watching a slideshow of the office at rest. It’s sharp, crisp and extremely effective. (The ending is equally powerful and stands as a fantastic contrast to the sterile office environment depicted in the film’s first few shots. But I can’t get in to specifics without revealing too much.)
The main plot follows Clayton (George Clooney) doing damage control after Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a brilliant attorney at KBL, goes off his medication for bipolar disorder and suffers a breakdown. Edens had been representing U-North, a prominent agrichemical company, in a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit. After stripping naked and ranting like a madman during a deposition, Edens proceeds to sabotage the case. This leads U-North’s chief counsel, the incredibly high-strung Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), to resort to desperate measures.
But things move slowly. We see Clayton go through the motions for the U-North case because it’s his job, but his heart isn’t in it. And so the case is treated by the filmmakers; it isn’t made glamorous or exciting until the very end, and even then the climax is subdued.
Thrown in to the mix are details of Clayton’s other cases and his personal life. But they come almost as an aside, seemingly unconnected to the central plot, making Michael Clayton more of a character study than a legal thriller.
In spite of this, we never delve too deeply into Clayton’s personal history. As Clooney plays him, he’s something of a blank slate, sleep-walking through life. There are hints at many levels of subtext, but much is left to the viewers’ imaginations.
Interestingly, the film’s most memorable characters are supporting players: Crowder and Edens. They are played perfectly by Swinton and Wilkinson, each of whom delivers an incredible performance. Both portray characters with severe mood or personality disorders, and both manage to capture the nuances of those disorders without going over the top.
But even though the film is a character study of a rather nondescript character, and the central storyline is a little lacklustre, it’s so well put together that I still really enjoyed it. Yes, it’s slow, but it isn’t afraid to let us watch as Clayton gazes, awestruck, at a trio of horses in a meadow. Or to hold the camera for several minutes on a man in a taxi. Or to start the film with a series of images of an office building. It’s beautifully written and directed by Tony Gilroy, who co-wrote all three Bourne films and who makes his directorial debut with Michael Clayton. Here’s a filmmaker who understands how to mix all the elements of a film together, creating a final product that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
I am less enthusiastic about Rendition. It tells the story of Egyptian-born US resident Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally) who is covertly moved to an African prison when the CIA identifies him as a terror suspect. Horrifyingly, this is all too familiar.
My biggest gripe with this film is that it tells the story in a generic way, leaving me to wonder what the point was. We’ve all heard this story before. If it’s going to be retold, it should either be excellently crafted or bring a new perspective to the ongoing dialogue.
Instead, it’s mediocre. The lead performances are flat, with a disappointing turn from Jake Gyllenhaal (who’s capable of so much more) as CIA analyst Douglas Freeman. He needs to return to his indie roots, or at least start choosing more challenging material. Metwally brings the only bit of soul that Rendition has, although director Gavin Hood failed to capitalize on the actor’s performance.
Final analysis: Michael Clayton—thumbs up; Rendition—thumbs down.
(I will make a point of posting about something other than the latest Hollywood fare… Gotta get back to The ByTowne soon.)