The Adjustable Truth is … uhm

26Mar08

So I finally got around to watching another Best Picture nominee of ’07 (I’ve seen two others, Juno and No Country for Old Men): Michael Clayton, directed by Tony Gilroy.

The film was nominated for seven Oscars and Tilda Swinton, who plays Karen Crowder, won Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role; by all means, the movie is excellent and well-deserving of a nomination. It’s nicely done and definitely worth watching, and the film’s duration of two hours is certainly manageable. I mean, admit it, an even two hours is really not that bad for a drama movie like this.

Still, despite its good qualities (which I will elaborate on in a moment), I can see why it was defeated by No Country for Old Men. The trailers for Michael Clayton built up too much hype for the movie, making it seem fast-paced or heart-pounding (“I’ve got your heart racin’ now, don’t I?”)—it’s really not, although it does have its moments. It’s more … smart and steadily continuous, I guess you could say. Ironically, in retrospect, the previews for No Country seem to be Clayton‘s polar opposite (no pun intended, as you will soon see) in that they were obscure enough not to promise too much and yet the movie blew me away. Despite demanding patience from the audience, it really did put me nervously on the edge of my seat—contradictory, perhaps, but I explained this in my review.

At any rate, it’s easy to get lost in the complexity of Clayton, a complexity which is derived from the indirect nature of the film: It’s one of those movies you have to pay close attention to in order to reap some of its deepest and fullest benefits, keep close tabs on the plot’s progression, and pick up the details that are not straightforwardly given, the latter meaning that things are often explained within the dialogue and the story’s unweaving themselves. Nonetheless, one can watch the entire movie and, whether or not he becomes confused about anything, can scrape away with the basic essentials of the movie that are enough to make it enjoyable; even if you might get the feeling there’s more than just that outer coating (I did) but can’t exactly put a finger on what, you still can acknowledge it as a good, clever, and satisfying film.

Michael Clayton, played by George Clooney

The film focuses on the endeavor to settle a six-year-old case, and throughout the course of the movie a cover-up is revealed, much to the attempted prevention of the people responsible. One important element of the film is the topic of the book Realm and Conquest that just keeps coming up, an occurrence not without purpose: How Clayton’s son, Henry, describes the events and people in the red book basically alludes to the conspiracy of the company U-North—everyone is “having the same dream … but they don’t know it,” but, as Arthur adds, it “is really happening.”

There are many interesting themes within the film, and a prominent one is identity. Throughout the movie, George Clooney’s character, Michael Clayton, is confronted in various ways with the subject of his own identity, from a cop pointing out that Michael’s got “everybody fooled but [himself]” to when Arthur simplistically asks him, “Then who are you?” but Michael fails to answer.

Perhaps more intriguing is the parallel that can be drawn between Tom Wilkinson’s character, Arthur Eden, a manic depressive and brilliant attorney for the same New York law firm where Clayton is employed as what he calls a “janitor”/“fixer,” and Clayton himself. Arthur obviously struggles with his own identity because he is afflicted with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that switches between highs and lows; finding brilliance and euphoric experiences in his disease during an episode, his first in eight years, he calls himself “Shiva, the god of death.”

What is even more interesting is that Clayton has a sort of mental illness himself, and it is ironic that while he pushes Arthur to get help during his episode and obsession with the case, he denies multiple times during the movie that he is still gambling, and there are several scenes that logically allude to a serious and damaging past addiction to which he clearly still suffers.

Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson)

At the end of the movie, however, once the conspiracy has been exposed and justice delivered, Clayton seems to come to terms with who he is, (re)discovering his identity. He has a heated conversation with Swinton’s character, Karen, at the end in which he describes himself in a definitive way, describing his own nature quite clearly. The conversation ends with Clayton saying, when prompted by the guard to state who he is, “I am Shiva, the god of death,” which is exactly how Arthur identified himself much earlier in the movie. I think that there can be multiple reasons or interpretations for why Michael says this. The statement itself acts as a piercing blow to Karen, confirming her guilt while simultaneously reminding her of Arthur, who was right about the case all along; thus it can also be an homage to the man whom everyone thought was just spewing meaningless gibberish, a product of his growing insanity. But, again, the line could also be a declaration of Clayton’s sense of self, a combination of a feeling of pride and satisfaction to deal justice again in a case that truly matters, to know he still “has it.” Indeed, before the screen turns to black, cuing the credits, a knowing smirk appears on Clayton’s lips.

Furthermore, a cool thing to note is the strong and lengthy presence of driving in the film, an action particularly exclusive to Michael. There is a scene where Michael stops his car and climbs a hill to take in the tranquility of his surroundings and three horses he watches in admiration, and that moment of peace is soon broken by a startling and violent contrast. In short, the horses connect with the repetition of Michael driving, and the reason is perhaps clarified at the end of the movie when, after having just solved the case, Michael calls a taxi and tells the owner to “just drive.” It seems that, like watching the horses and enjoying the beauty and silence atop the hill, driving is a way for Michael to clear his head and get his bearings, to process things and think—which possibly explains why after a minute’s ride (which is probably shown, by the way, to point this out) in the cab Michael finally smiles.

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