Michael Clayton (2007)

Published on November 2nd, 2011

Alex recommends Michael Clayton’s near-perfection, and the cinematic year that was 2007.

I seem to have an odd obsession with the cinematic year of 2007, one that I can absolutely put into a shitload of words but will only do so briefly here. Simply put, it was a great year for film, and it was also the first great year in film that I was smart enough to realize how great it was as it was happening. It was a year where the Academy actually gave Best Picture to the best movie of the year, something that hadn’t previously happened in my lifetime. And even though I rarely trust the Academy’s opinions, 2007 was the year when their nominations were littered with movies I adored, movies that were as good as movies can get. Gone Baby Gone. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. No Country for Old Men. The Bourne Ultimatum. Michael Clayton.

The George Clooney legal thriller seems to be one of the more under appreciated films of that year, mostly because it looked like a movie for old people. Since people my age grew up when John Grisham courtroom novels were constantly being adapted into movies that never appealed to us (The Firm, The Client, The Rainmaker, etc.), we have always thought those movies were for people far older than we are. They looked boring as shit, except for that scene in a trailer where Tom Cruise full out sprints while wearing a long trench coat and carrying a gigantic briefcase. That just seemed funny. Each time I went to see Michael Clayton, I was the youngest person in the movie theatre by at least twenty years; it was like seeing Mystic River all over again, except this time I got to see a movie that didn’t suck.

Michael Clayton can be described as many things: it’s a legal thriller (whatever that means), it’s a character study (whatever that means), and it’s a really fucking good movie. The most interesting thing about the movie, however, is how simple it is. Everything is spelled out for the audience, but the script is so tightly written, and the themes so interesting, that one can’t help but get wrapped up in it. With pacing that is probably typically referred to as ‘deliberate’ (read: slow), Michael Clayton is all about building to its conclusion. We get interesting scene after interesting scene, and every five minute section of the movie is more interesting than the five minutes that came before it. I often wonder if this is the most perfect film I have ever seen, despite it probably not being something I would count in my twenty or so favourites. It just feels like this movie is the embodiment of the definition of what Hollywood cinema should look like. When the conclusion hits, everything that has been established will be solved, except for the one thing that can’t be.

The following description of the last shot of Michael Clayton doesn’t really spoil anything, and I have no moral issues writing about what seems like it should be called a spoiler, precisely because it isn’t really. (Although if you’re like me and considered somebody publicly blurting out a vaguely important mid-plot point of the terrible 2004 Julia Stiles vehicle The Prince and Me offensive, you may want to stop reading now, hopefully to add Michael Clayton to your torrent queue.) After the plot’s conclusion, the movie simply ends. The camera follows a character into a taxi, and we see them hand the cabbie some money before saying, “Just drive.” The credits then begin to roll next to our character as they sit silently, and a few minutes later the film cuts to black for a title card. And I guess a big part of why I will always love this movie is because now that character looks completely different to me. I go to a theatre, and I hand somebody my money, and then I’m sitting quietly with other people but always still more or less by myself for the next couple hours. I’m going somewhere, but I don’t particularly care where. And the reason 2007, and Michael Clayton in particular, will always mean something to me is because this was the first time I realized that I was finally able to see what was really going on around me.

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