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Photo: ‘Michael Clayton’
‘Michael Clayton,’ 2007’s legal thriller directed by Tony Gilroy (Bourne Franchise, Rogue One) starring George Clooney, is finally on Netflix. Nominated for 7 Academy Awards, for which Tilda Swinton won “Best Supporting Actress,” it’s now mostly an afterthought when we consider the best films since 2000. And it isn’t any sort of revolutionary premise and it isn’t packed with breathtaking action sequences, like the Bourne Franchise which Gilroy is credited with writing; it’s a slow burn — a psychological and legal thriller. You can imagine how a movie where the stakes are realistic, in an ever more bombastic movie industry, doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves. Yet, its brilliance is partly underscored by its understatedness and its subtlety.
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In the movie, Michael (Clooney) is frustrated that he never makes partner at the law firm he’s worked at for 20 years. His problem is that he’s too good at what he does, which is a fixer, a lawyer who cleans up scandals for big clients. Like its titular protagonist, ‘Michael Clayton’ is best interacted with under the radar, because to give him too much credit in the light of day would in effect defeat its purpose. Because Gilroy’s writing and directing of ‘Michael Clayton’ is a virtuosic achievement in cinema storytelling that both undermines and underscores the timelessness of classic structure. If you ever want to study screenwriting or filmmaking, ‘Michael Clayton’ might serve as your best template for better understanding movies. Michael Clayton is so good, so complex, and yet so sleek it will make you want to go back and read the script like a novel. And I recommend you do.
How to Open
Screenwriting is writing that is visually oriented first and foremost. It’s a strange medium to read for literary merit, but Gilroy’s script withstands the analysis. If you read the script, in addition to watching the movie, you’ll find the opening scene direction on the very first page of Michael Clayton could be enough to fill a notebook with realizations about screenwriting. The descriptive language in the script is beautifully done by Gilroy, who writes with a director’s vision. He writes of the law firm’s building in the opening shots as “…vibrating with the beehive energy of six hundred attorneys and their attendant staff, but for the moment it is a vast, empty, half-lit shell.” That’s someone with a profound understanding of visual storytelling. The emphasis on the mood of particular shots is also included in the writing, something you wouldn’t see in most scripts. He writes of those same shots: “…shots that build quietly to the idea somewhere here — somewhere in this building — there’s something very important going on.” All of this is implicit in the visual experience of the film, but one rarely realizes the forethought that goes into shots that seem unimportant.
Arthur Edens (played by Tom Wilkinson) delivers the monologue over the opening scene, speaking in cryptic terms of Michael as a savior, the evils and filth of the corporate world, and the lawyers that uphold it. Gilroy is building the law firm up visually, through shots and music as he introduces it to the viewer, yet simultaneously undermining it with Edens’ words, punctuating each new shot with a layer of irony, due to the juxtaposition of the monologue and the visuals. Later on, you find out that the monologue was in fact a message left to Michael by Arthur to explain what later becomes the main plot conflict of the film. It not only characterizes Arthur’s mental state, who is written off as a crazy man despite being ultimately right, but introduces Michael as the hero.
We first meet Michael playing poker in a dingy underground gambling room, when he gets a call: a big client had committed a hit and run. Michael was to be in Westchester as soon as possible to fix the situation. 30 minutes later, he’s in a wealthy man’s kitchen explaining that while he can’t make the man’s problem go away he can clean it up: “I’m not a miracle worker. I’m a janitor,” Michael tells him in Clooney’s cool delivery. Michael leaves the man’s house, and on his way home, spots three horses on top of a hill. It’s an overcast December day in New York, and something possesses Michael to park his Mercedes and climb to the top of the hill. There, something is changing in Michael as strokes one of their manes. Then, without warning, his Mercedes explodes. Bewildered, Michael runs into the thicket behind him. On the screen reads, “Four Days Earlier.” Then the movie really begins.
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How to Close
Gilroy’s genius is that by the end of the movie, you watch that same opening sequence again with a completely different context, characterization, and pacing. With different angles mixed in and the occasional change of perspective, you watch in awe of the writing as the movie commits the seemingly impossible task of enthralling you with a 20-minute sequence you’ve already seen before. It’s both exactly what you watched when the film opens, and a completely different sequence of events altogether. In doing this, Gilroy is reframing and underscoring the spiritual transformation, which all real stories are defined by, of his protagonist, but also doing something more meta. He’s giving you, the viewer, a spiritual transformation yourself, by showing you that because you have more information and experience in the world of his film, the thing in front of you hasn’t changed — you have. Now that you understand more fully, a sequence that looked like a certain thing was actually something entirely different. Nothing is as it seems. It’s a nice touch for a legal thriller involving cover-ups, betrayal, and lies.
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To speak nothing of the profundity of Gilroy’s sleight of hand, this accomplishment alone is so technically impressive that it should be taught in every screenwriting course in America. A lot of story writing structure, people like Dan Harmon and Joseph Campbell who popularized the hero’s journey structure with his book The Hero with A Thousand Faces, emphasizes the return home after undertaking a journey. The point being that by returning home, the way in which the hero has changed is amplified compared to who he was before leaving. Gilroy manages to do that not only with Michael Clayton, but through intricate writing, with his audience as well.
I can’t recommend the movie highly enough. In addition to the writing, it is perhaps Clooney’s best lead performance. The final shot stays trained on his face for minutes as the credits roll, and we simply watch Michael Clayton decompress from what’s happened, after telling a cab driver to “just drive.” The legendary Sydney Pollack accompanies Clooney as a no-BS lawyer, along with Swinton’s award-winning performance and Wilkinson’s scene-stealing presence.
Written/Directed: Tony Gilroy
Cast: George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack
Castle Rock Entertainment
Section Eight Productions
By Patrick Lynott
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Patrick Lynott is a writer and screenwriter. He cares about Cinema. He cares about meaningful stories. And he cares about preserving and elevating things that people work long and hard on.Despite the incessant barrage of “content” vying for his (and everyone’s) attention, he believes it’s never been more important to pedestalize labors of real art across from a spectrum of voices. The Hollywood Insider is one of the few networks committed to doing this through substantive coverage of quality entertainment. The future of good Cinema and healthy culture relies on outlets and people willing to champion those values. Here’s to that future.