' ' Cinema Romantico: Some Drivel On...Michael Clayton

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Some Drivel On...Michael Clayton

If Tony Gilroy’s marvelous “Michael Clayton” (2007) is a thriller, mining suspense from the usual suspects like car bombs and secret assassinations, not to mention a jigsaw narrative firmly committed to the dramatic reversal as it jumps around in time, it’s mostly a movie about performance. Not about movie about performances, per se, though it is that, stacked with great ones, Clooney scoring an Oscar nod for Best Actor and Tilda Swinton winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, even Denis O’Hare in a sensational single scene walk-off embodying the four stages of rich white guy guilt. No, a movie about how we, people, human beings perform, especially ones within the corporate world where putting on a happy face amid so much avaricious skullduggery is the foremost job requirement. 

An agricultural conglomerate with an appropriately fatuous, impenetrable moniker – U-North – has been hit with an eleventy billion dollar class-action lawsuit, one its defense firm, Kenner, Bach and Ledeen, is hammering through in the dead of night as the movie opens, painting corporate lawyers as overworked vampires for whom billing, I guess, counts as sucking blood. This has been necessitated, we gradually learn, because the architect of the defense, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has not merely begun secretly mounting a case against his own client but stripped naked in the middle of a deposition, bringing the whole case to a tipping point. The latter prompts Kenner, Bach and Ledeen to dispatch their fixer, Michael Clayton (George Clooney), to appease U-North’s General Counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), and get Arthur back on his medication. That might sound indelicate, suggesting that Arthur’s a ha moment is a direct result of ditching his meds. Wilkinson’s performance, however, in its unchained bravado, suggests just as much that in going off his medicine he has merely gone mad, as if madness is the only logical end point for his profession, as if upon truly confronting the mandated bad deeds you either go off the deep end or let it roll off your shoulders. 

Letting it roll off your shoulders, in fact, is exactly what one of the firm’s partners, Marty Bach, has learned to do, exemplified in a virtuoso Sydney Pollack performance, his eyes locked in a semi-sort of squint suggesting he can’t believe anyone going soft in the face of seven figures. In effect, neither Marty nor Arthur are giving performances. Marty Bach never has given a performance, in tune with the world’s iniquities, and Arthur has stopped giving a performance, the florid, fantastic monologue he recites in voiceover as the film opens about departing the metaphorical filth of his profession (“coated in a patina of shit” is a perfect description of the New American Dream) akin to Daniel Day-Lewis leaving the National Theatre midway through Hamlet, never to return to the stage. 

Karen Crowder, on the other hand, is not so much giving the performance of a lifetime as living a life that is performance. Swinton might have been criticized in some quarters for the excessively exacting nature of her turn, noticeably laboring every line reading, every gesture. Of course, that punctiliousness, given the film’s theme, is the point. In her introductory sequence Karen rehearses for a television interview, going over what she wants to say line by line, honing it, and not yet dressed, like the attire is the completion of assuming the part. In the ensuing conversation with the reporter, the way Swinton has Karen say “it’s a shifting balance” in response to a question about work/life balance brutally underlines how little most companies care about that balance to begin with; indeed, she the character has virtually no home life to speak of, just work and getting ready for work. She is living the role.

No one wavers in their performative existence, however, more than Michael. An early scene, one of the few he spends in his office, fielding phone calls from clients, initially feels like a throwaway. But watch the moment where, upon being asked to name a few connections in the Miami area, Michael advises the caller that he needs to get a pen. He’s already holding a pen, of course, as we can clearly see, his little white lie suddenly standing in for his whole life, like he’s debating whether to rip off the tragedy mask and bolt. Indeed, off hours he is on the hook for $75,000 for a restaurant business that went belly-up. If the venture was supposed to be his way out of performing as a fixer, he’s forced to maintain his poker face instead, even as it keeps threatening to fall away, the more he tries to help Arthur and the more he realizes that Arthur was on to something.

The more, however, Michael realizes Arthur was on to something, the more incentive there is for Karen to keep Michael quiet, leading to her enlisting a couple assassins to rub him out. If it’s a heightened plot twist, the actual car bomb meant to end his life, which Michael avoids through a twist of fate, is less about the explosion, really, than his metaphorical rebirth. The movie closes with what is tantamount to an acting face-off – between Clooney and Swinton and between Michael and Karen – as he walks in on her at a critical moment, risen from the dead, and in demanding a payout, calls her professional bluff. He walks away, which Clooney gives the moving ring of utterly exhausted triumph, while Karen, in the background, freezes for a moment before collapsing to her knees, having buried herself so deep in the part she’s become stuck.

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