Beginning with the obvious: Michael Clayton is a great movie. Its effect dawns immediately and never lets up until the last seconds of the movie. People clap at the end. Most spectators note the intelligence of the script-particularly in its elegantly rich dialogue, which is vulgar and revealing. Clooney’s paradoxically calm but desperation-driven cadences, the brittle insecurities mouthed by a haunted Tilda Swinton, the great Tom Wilkinson’s romantic insanity, and young Austin Williams (who’s unbelievably touching as Clooney’s son), all make the film’s long, sure character loops and detours work. Yet the real strength of Michael Clayton is how it envelops you in itself, in New York, frequently shooting a room from across chasms and grids of glass and steel. Something’s always overhead. Even the forays into the countryside are wound around interiors and shots of horses in a field-the film’s only slightly cheesy trick-creating a muted kind of onscreen poetry.
One friend, a real Hollywood moviemaker, slightly dissed the film as merely a well-made movie with few surprises. But I can’t think of five well-made movies from Hollywood in the last decade, stretching back to American Beauty, which many hoped would launch a Re-Renaissance. Brokeback Mountain? Million Dollar Baby? We can’t even agree on these exemplary, prickly films the way we once agreed on The Godfather or The Sting. Clayton is a relatively straightforward legal thriller that combines the restlessness of male-unraveling melodramas: Erin Brockovichmeets Save the Tiger. The difference here is that this has a ridiculously strong pleasure principle. While watching it, that’s all you want to do.
It’s getting hard lately to justify the constant blockbustering of movies without any solid core. After the success of The Departed last year-a happily foul-mouthed rewrite of a B-grade Hong Kong gangster film-I was ready to believe Hollywood was officially missing. Michael Clayton returns hope, not only for American movies, but for the future of the illusion itself.