Tony Gilroy, most famous for writing THE BOURNE IDENTITY, shows some serious chops his first time out as a director. The man left me impressed on a simple technical level, with effective use of things like framing, focusing and maximizing space within a shot. (This is definitely a movie made for widescreen.) Story-wise, MICHAEL CLAYTON is understated but powerful. The film is almost entirely actors talking, yet through sheer performance they turn out a potent thriller. The pacing is slow and methodical, but also full of intrigue. It’s not an action-filled movie (Clooney kicks down a door at one point!) or a thriller in the typical sense, but the characters themselves create a great natural tension and suspense.
Likewise, I also enjoyed that it was a movie about lawyers, but, at the same time, not about them at all (comparable to 12 ANGRY MEN). The lawsuit is the center of the movie, but you don’t know about the case and you don’t care about the case. What’s important is the people and their relationships behind the scenes. Thankfully, Gilroy’s script is tight and gripping enough to pull this off. (In a just world, I’d like to see CLAYTON take the original screenplay Oscar over the enjoyable but textually overrated JUNO.)
The actors use Gilroy’s words to construct some outstanding performances. Clooney plays against his typical outwardly charming self, instead opting for a character that’s quiet and reserved, but packs a lot of emotion behind the eyes. There is many a scene where so much is conveyed simply through Clooney’s slightest facial expression, a nice change of pace for the actor. Tilda Swinton has a smaller role, but she makes the most out of every scene and her chemistry in the final meeting with Clooney is electric. Then there’s Tom Wilkinson who is unbelievable (in a great way). His wildly deteriorating attorney balances insanity with clarity, and the man is simultaneously believable at both. Javier Bardem was great in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, but this is Wilkinson’s year.
Commentary by writer/director Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy: First time directors have the potential to give really insightful and honest commentaries, and thankfully Gilroy is no different. His journey to get the movie made is interesting, as are his stories from the set. And yes, the editor is his brother.
Additional Scenes (5:35): Interestingly, there’s a scene here that features Clayton’s girlfriend, who seems to have been cut out of the film entirely. It adds an interesting extra dimension to the character, but to an already busy film.
Extra Tidbit: Gilroy’s first movie was the ice skating romantic comedy THE CUTTING EDGE.