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Clayton fixes film

Ted AlvarezArts & Entertainment Writer
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Michael Clayton is an anomaly in modern film: Its a firmly adult, wordy legal thriller that dumbs down nothing and panders to no one. To fully appreciate whats happening, you have to listen to the voices and read the faces onscreen; there arent any brightly colored action sequences, musical montages or other hackneyed Hollywood shortcuts to help along those who spend too much time yelling audibly at the screen. But despite this, or perhaps because of it, Michael Clayton maintains a level of suspense unseen in any blockbuster this summer (save perhaps The Bourne Ultimatum) and remains a thrilling piece of entertainment even while exploring the thorniest of moral quandaries.Michael Clayton (George Clooney) plays a fixer for a top-notch law firm in New York, which means that instead of taking things to trial, he works the blurred edges of crime and law with connections, charm and occasional envelopes of money to clean up the messes of the extremely wealthy. He refers to himself as a janitor, and he knows his work is dirty, but hes stuck: Despite the outward trappings of luxury slick suit, rented Mercedes, etc. hes deeply in debt thanks to his failed restaurant and barely contained gambling problem. Still, you get the sense Claytons conscience stirs just below the surface, and all it might take is a single seismic event to awaken it. This happens when firm partner Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) loses his mind at a taped deposition in Milwaukee: He strips off his clothes, declares his love for the plaintiff and goes running off naked into the snowy streets of Milwaukee. But Edens seeming break with reality awakens him to a lucid truth: Hes spent years defending a gigantic agrochemical company called U/North responsible for the deaths of hundreds, and hes about to win. But Edens has a smoking gun that can turn the tide, and the newly motivated man plans to use it.U/Norths general counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) cant let that happen, and shes prepared to use any method at her disposal to tamp down their little problem. Clooney, the ultimate janitor, is brought in to clean up, but soon he isnt sure which mess he should be cleaning.Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, Clayton has ultra-sharp dialogue that drips with byzantine legalese and sinister wit, but it never loses the viewer because the plot is always moving forward, even when its told in clever flashback. In every scene we learn something new about the characters and the situation, and Gilroy, who wrote the Bourne series, brings the same sense of economical tension while eschewing the jittery hand-held camera and outright fisticuffs.Since words are the primary weapons of the battles fought onscreen, the action and suspense is amped up by the fantastic cinematography by Robert Elswit. Backroom offices seethe with luxurious, wood-paneled danger, and Clayton himself often seems to melt into the ominous shadows. A twilight, pre-dawn scene with a wordless Clooney is given a special, frosty poignancy that gets brutally interrupted by one of a few moments of physical suspense.All the actors involved give stunning, unshowy performances, even the unknown bit players. Clooney is at the height of his powers, and he uses his self-aware, understated style to merely hint at the conflict within, which is more than enough. Wilkinson is a revelation here, providing a glimpse into a mad mind just waking up to the muck around him. The showy role of the crazy guy is always dangerous, but Wilkinson never loses sight of the rapier intelligence that guides Edens to the truth in spite of his mental illness. Swinton is fantastic as a woman who has sold her soul to a corporation in the most mundane way possible, and her moments of weakness show her to be much more than just a pat villain.Michael Clayton may score some surprise nominations come Oscar time, but this is exactly the type of understated but perfectly executed film that gets ignored for awards but has long-lasting significance. Like The Insider before it, the movie taps into a darkness that pervades our society, an evil much more present than the gun-toting mastermind. Gilroy wraps a gripping story with shady compromises, dark morality and a refreshing lack of Hollywood optimism, and he and Clooney remind us that sometimes it takes another villain to bring down the real-life bad guys.


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