Michael Clayton (2007)
I believe we might just be witnessing a new trend in American filmmaking, or at least a renaissance. During the 1970s, quite a few dramatic films were released that were heavy on content, thematically daring and had a narrative structure that weren't as moulded as the average film usually is. In the 1980s as well as for large parts of the past decade, such approaches were rare. However, with this year's Zodiac and Michael Clayton, we have two films that might signal that the audience is ready for a challenge. The massive outlet of fast-cut, over-analysed crime series on television (regardless of quality, I should add) has the effect that the film medium will try to find angles that wouldn't work (or be allowed to work) on television, while at the same time satisfying the experienced viewer's thirst for something else, something more challenging. Stories that are not necessarily spelled out, and not necessarily recognizably structured. Traditionally, experimentally structured films haven't been as thematically ambitious as a film like Michael Clayton is. Experienced screenwriter Tony Gilroy's directorial debut is a welcomed change of pace for the seasoned film-viewer.
The story is a classic dig-beneath-the-surface thriller told largely from first-person perspective. What Gilroy does, however, is to use techniques more typical for the novel. There are story lines and developments that he not simply evades telling us in order to have something hard-hitting to use for the final part (which films like this traditionally have done, and to good effect), but instead he gives us bits and pieces of information, almost randomly, that chances are will confuse just as much as enlight. The reason that this works, if you're up to the challenge, is that we feel that many of the characters are largely in the same boat as us. The complexity of the situation(s) is what is weighing down on these poor people, whom all are victims of a society so full of pressure for success, that they are no longer in touch with their own principles. The only one who eventually does, is labeled insane. My argument is that Gilroy's approach intensifies the social comment, while at the same time makes a film that dares to be intricate without being problematizing.
The acting in Michael Clayton is impressively and consistently high-rate. George Clooney, for me, has turned into one of the most reliable and humane leading men over the past few years. There's no star quality involved in his acting, merely serious and whole-hearted empathy. Kudos also to Tom Wilkinson for another soul-searching absorbing performance, but the really courageous performance belongs to Tilda Swinton who completely strips down for her part as Karen Crowder. I think she might be up for an Academy Award nomination.
I suspect, however, that neither Tony Gilroy nor Michael Clayton will. The film is probably a little too inaccessible and heavy on subject for the average viewer (not that the Academy should represent one such). But I think and hope that we will see more films like this in the near future. And based on George Clooney's latest ability to search out and take on challenging parts, chances are he will feature in them.