Clooney tunes: ‘Clayton’ sings

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Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

Such is the mind of Arthur Edens (played by Tom Wilkinson), a bulldog litigator for a prestigious firm who, while defending a multinational chemical company client, goes completely bonkers and then goes missing.

The opening scenes of “Michael Clayton” commences with a message left by Arthur on the voicemail of our titular character, filled with conspiratorial ramblings similar to those of Peter Finch’s “mad as hell” rants in “Network.”

But the 70s-era echoes do not end there; in fact, the entire film could rolls with the same vibe as the best paranoid pics of the Nixon era (“Three Days of the Condor,” “The Conversation,” and “The Parallax View” all come to mind).

It’s hard to label “Clayton” as a thriller in the modern definition of the word, though. For those who have been suckling at the cinematic teat of John Grisham-styled legal potboilers will undoubtedly be frustrated with the more modulated narrative and deliberate pacing here.

There are no surprise twists, no last-minute chases through the streets and the only explosion has not a single casualty – it just spooks a few ponies.

Audience members not compelled to flip open their cell phones to check the time even half hour will be well rewarded for their attention, for in “Clayton” it’s the long pauses that allow the pressure to rise and bubble.

George Clooney plays Clayton, a man relegated to the position of the law firm’s “janitor,” which means he’s responsible for cleaning up the chaos for clients, regardless of how ugly the situation may be. It’s shadowy work, and Clooney’s ashen, hollowed visage demonstrates that he’s in the position far too long.

He is dispensed to tidy up the mess made by Arthur, which could be catastrophic for his firm, but Clayton’s also haunted by personal demons that occasionally surface to tighten his noose (a gambling debt here, a fractured familial relationship there).

Though he may be the film’s protagonist, he’s certainly no “hero.” The film does allow us to understand him – and the other characters – a bit better, giving each subtle nuances that take us closer into their own worlds. For we all have hypothetical “lines” – be they ethical, professional or moral – that we self-righteously claim we would never cross. But each character in the film is forced to that precipice. It’s to the cast’s credit that we are never really sure what direction their next step will land.

Tilda Swinton, resembling an eerie mix of “Silkwood” –era Meryl Streep and “Silence of the Lambs” –era Jodie Foster, is the chemical company’s chief executive who must also make some very unsavory decisions about how to cork this potential powder keg. Her steely public persona is contrasted with shots of her nervously sopping sweat from under her blazer.

Where past films such as the “Ocean’s” trilogy have given us George Clooney the movie star, “Clayton” provides a platform for George Clooney the actor, letting his talent outweigh his charisma (of which he has his fair share).  It would be surprising if it did not land him on more than one list of the year’s top performances.

And for all the depth and grace he gives his role, Clooney remains eclipsed by Wilkinson, whose nuanced mad prophet can shift our reaction to him from pity to fear in seconds. Arthur’s stream-of-consciousness tirades can be blamed on not taking his anti-depressants, but for him it’s a release valve of years devoted to performing some rather dark deeds.

It is also who Clayton may be destined to become.

Director/writer Tony Gilroy could have easily structured this to become a linear, connect-the-dots thriller. He’s proven himself a tack-sharp writer of the “Bourne” films, and could have slipped into the jittery, jumpy camcorder approach that has marked the franchise. Instead, he wisely tinkers only with the narrative structure.

The director – and the actors – of “Michael Clayton” understands that the most effective cinematic experiences are not only for the eyes, but also for the brain.

~ by usesoapfilm on October 16, 2007.

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