As promised a week ago, my review:
Like I said earlier, I’ve now seen all but one Best Picture nominee from 2007. I remember being a little surprised by it’s nomination (although really shouldn’t have been, given that this would be George Clooney’s third dramatic picture to get significant awards attention, along with Good Night and Good Luck and Syriana). Mainly because it looked like something that’s been done before. And technically it has. The plot reads like something out of a Grisham novel – Attourney uncovers conspiracy/cover-up, does something about it. It’s familiar territory of the last two decades or so, particularly in the earlier 1990’s when six John Grisham legal thrillers were released within four years.
So yes, the story’s been done before. But the way it was told in Michael Clayton is what makes it what it is. In general, I find most movies entertaining. This is probably why you’ll never see a grade lower than a C+ on this site. It needs to really miss the mark and actually bore me for that to happen. But when a movie surprises me; catches me off-guard with even something as small as the framing of a shot or a small scene with perfect chemistry, that’s when I really perk up.
Michael Clayton starts off strong by beginning near the end of the plot and then going back and showing the events that lead up to it. It’s a device that can very easily backfire, but when it works, it can result in some of the best moments (if not movies) in recent memory. While it doesn’t lead to a devastating reveal like in Memento, but it makes the linear story more powerful as a result. The scenes that start the film are great as is, but Writer/Director Tony Gilroy’s choice is one that makes the story, when told in full, that much more gripping.
As for specific scenes that grabbed me, Tilda Swinton’s Oscar-winning performance consists almost exclusively of the best scenes in the movie. Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy deserve a good deal of credit for her best scenes. The film as a whole is equally well-directed and paced. While it feels like a long movie, it’s two hour runtime seldom drags. Clooney’s performance is up to his established standard, but the supporting cast is what makes it work as well as it does. While it is fundamentally about the title character, the supporting cast is in general just more impressive. Tom Wilkinson’s performance is very powerful, and in the hands (well, voice) of a lesser actor, the monologue that opens the film would sound foolish, but Wilkinson nails it.
Other standout elements include James Newton Howard’s score and the overall look of the film. The subject matter is harsh, and the film itself has a cold tone to it. While it’s not overbearing, it keeps the tone consistent, and when paired with Gilroy’s direction, it makes for a very consistent visual result. But it’s by no means a flawless film. While repeat viewings (and I intend to have a few) may reveal more to it, I found that the subplot concerning Michael’s family were a little superfluous, and somewhat confusing given how things wind up ending. It tallies up to about five minutes of the whole film, but it felt a little out of place. Any sort of character depth given to Clooney by them is ultimately overshadowed by the journey that the main plot takes him through. They’re not bad scenes, but their function in the overall narrative is unclear.
But all the same, it’s a compelling story that’s told incredibly well. And really, what else can I ask for in a movie? It’s easy to dismiss it as just another legal thriller on paper, but on screen, it’s hard to ignore.