Conspiracy drama enthralls

At its best, Michael Clayton is a movie that mesmerizes with the intricacy of gears turning in a finely-tuned machine. It’s one of the newest and one of the better entries into the global conspiracy drama genre that’s recently come to the fore (think Syriana, featuring Clooney in a similarly disquieting role). It’s also something of a throwback to the paranoid-political thrillers of the 1970s and their practiced competence (think All the President’s Men). Michael Clayton distinguishes itself from its contemporary peers with a similar competence, and with the deftness of touch and smooth professionalism with which it spins its narrative yarn.

At its heart, Michael Clayton is a movie about both the seduction and corruption of the all-knowing institution. From its opening shots of gleaming office buildings devoid of any warmth or life, the film presents us with both the inhumanity and seductive power of the modern corporation. Our introduction to uNorth, the corporation in question, comes not in the carefully styled visage of Clooney but in a series of intriguingly ambiguous vignettes introducing several of the key players, strung together to the jarring voice of Arthur Edens (an excellent Tom Wilkinson). We ultimately meet Michael (George Clooney), a fixer at the law-firm retained as council to uNorth, in the midst of a poker game. Michael’s status as a fixer makes him both valuable and expendable, as he spends his time cleaning up the messes made by the higher-ups.

Clooney’s brand of suave charisma both complements the cold pleasures of the film and undermines its visceral impact. His charm has a certain veneer of impenetrability, one that both distances and endears but ultimately fails to provide the film with the moral center it tries to make of him. Efforts at his humanization – the alcoholic brother, the cute little son – register more as developmental attempts than genuine elucidation of character. At one point, he is accused as having everyone fooled and being the only one who knows what he is; it’s not even clear that he knows himself.

Michael’s ambiguity serves him well as the plot predictably but satisfyingly moves him towards moral self-discovery. Through his friend and colleague Arthur, he discovers that the case his law firm is engaged in is (surprise, surprise) not as good as it seems, and that uNorth, that friendly mega-corporation, may have blood on its hands. As Michael starts to pick the sense out of Arthur’s manic-depressive rants – and his queasy morality grows into a full-fledged truth-seeking urge – he never fully develops into the heroic character we’re meant to see him as. He remains, to the end, resolutely ambiguous.

Michael moves through this world like the janitor that he is, always on the fringes. There’s a certain dark glamour to the power plays and disturbing implications of his world, as captured by Robert Elswit’s razor-sharp photography. Every shot gleams silver-gray with glass and metal, and the satisfying regularity with which the movie weaves its narrative threads into their ultimately explosive climax makes it feel as much a corporate commodity as any of uNorth’s products.

In the film’s most mesmerizing sequence, Karen Crowder, the chief counsel for the behemoth institution, prepares word-for-word responses for an interview and gives the interview simultaneously through some nimble parallel editing. The juxtaposition of Karen’s painstaking preparations and her immaculate delivery make clear the fundamental vapidity and repulsiveness of her character. As she’s written, Karen has the potential to dip dangerously close to cliché, but as played by a brilliant Tilda Swinton, the character is effective because of the unswerving banality of her evil. As her jaw trembles and her doughy flesh rolls, she is by turns repulsive, feeble and horrifyingly mundane. She is both pitiable and grossly inhuman, and something of a tour de force for Swinton.

In his directing debut, Tony Gilroy, already a successful screenwriter (the Bourne franchise), turns away from the frenetic visuals of the Bourne movies and towards a stable, rhythmic competence that mirrors the film’s institutional subject. The film doesn’t race forward but moves steadily along. It builds towards an inevitable but somehow disappointingly moral conclusion; we get the heroism we so desire, but what sticks with us afterwards is instead the insidious amorality of Michael’s world.

And to the extent that Michael Clayton depicts an amoral world, it succeeds. It is an extraordinarily well-crafted exercise of a conspiracy thriller, working with all the smoothness and efficiency of a well-oiled machine. Its parts spin smoothly and silently, the skill and adroitness of their construction revealing the emptiness of purpose that renders the film’s tidy ending unsatisfying. And if Michael Clayton ultimately feels like it could be one of uNorth’s products, maybe that’s part of the point.

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