Mike: I was really surprised by Michael Clayton, I have to admit. I was expecting a very by-the-numbers legal thriller, and instead it’s this very intimate character study.
Maggie: I was expecting a very by-the-numbers legal thriller, and I thought it was. The Firm, The Pelican Brief… These have highly developed characters… Maybe not as developed as Clayton, but still, it doesn’t seem like a big stretch.
Mike: Really? Because I think the character of Michael Clayton doesn’t have the kind of overwhelming moral epiphany like the characters in the Grisham adaptations. I feel like the average legal thriller works off this premise that lawyers are fundamentally despicable people until they experience this true moral outrage or whatever. I don’t think Gilroy spends time apologizing for the fact that Clayton is this cover-up artist, that he’s a compulsive gambler and kind of a cold fish. I think like any gambler, Clayton weighs the odds stacked against him and reacts accordingly, right down to the last scene.
Maggie: Okay, so you make a good point. I still feel like the format is so similar: there’s a big bad guy out there that’s trying to cover up wrongdoings and one little lawyer guy finds out about it and has to go after the big bad guy, and he wins.
Mike: I can dig that, but when you’re talking about any genre film, a lot of times it’s about how that film excels within the structure of the genre. Would it be any more interesting if Clayton didn’t win? For me it was more interesting that he rushes towards that inevitable climax not because he thought it was his moral obligation but because, I think, he wants revenge.
Maggie: Interesting. Okay, well do you think that character development is essential for all the characters or just Clayton? The insights into Swinton’s character—all the unflattering shots of her in her pantyhose in front of her mirror fumbling her upcoming speeches—just kind of got on my nerves and seemed extraneous. I guess they helped the viewer understand her character and how panicky she is and what leads her to her decisions, but in the end, she still orders Wilkinson and Clayton’s murders. Milton was very successful in making Lucifer more admirable by showing his “humanity,” but what could be Gilroy’s purpose in employing this method?
Mike: I actually agree with you here. So, Tilda Swinton has just won the Oscar and though I thought the performance was solid I wasn’t wild about the characterization. The only thing I would say about those preparatory sequences is that I’m not certain that Gilroy’s going so much for the humanization of evil as he is the banality of evil. Y’know? How the picture’s overlying atrocity, the mass poisoning, is perpetuated by this petty bureaucracy, but that same insular culture can create a murderer.
Maggie: Yeah, okay, that’s pretty brilliant, and a big problem for Americans generally. It’s a truly relevant idea right now too, considering our current political environment. It seems like Americans have been sitting idly by, re-electing an embarrassing president that we can blame our country’s fouls on. We elected him; we’re responsible. If “America” is at war, you and I are at war. It’s not just Bush; it’s Mike and Maggie. I think people are just now starting to take up arms against “the banality of evil” as you put it, and I hope that this election year will begin real change. You’re really pointing out some things I didn’t notice at all. Interesting.
Mike: Hooray! Come to the dark side! We have better pie! Alright, now I know you wanted to talk about the horses?
Maggie: Yeah, I mean, sure, they get him out of his car so that he doesn’t explode, therefore moving the plot forward, but why does he stop? Then? And why is he entranced by the horses? Sometimes horses represent freedom or similar ideas, but these horses were in bridles, tamed by someone, not free.
Mike: Okay, I think it’s a beautiful image just in the abstract, and all the connotations of freedom, especially when he’s just been to that cocksucker’s house, who hit a guy in his car and now Clayton has to cover it up. But further back chronologically we find out about this book that his kid’s reading, “Realm & Conquest”, which is like the overt political metaphor in the film; not just the name, but when the kid is talking about the plot with Tom Wilkinson and everyone is experiencing a communal dream, but no one says anything so no one realizes it’s all this shared experience, this delusional experience or whatever. I think this is clever. Anyway, Clayton’s flipping through his kid’s book and sees this drawing of horses and that’s the moment that the U-North memo falls out of the book. So I think in both cases, the horses represent this break from the communal dream…
Maggie: Thanks for explaining the movie! G’night!
Mike: Ramble ramble ramble, I know. So let’s sum up, baby!
Maggie: Well, I enjoyed the movie, but I apparently didn’t notice any of the totally interesting stuff that you did. I thought all the acting was stellar and it was visually impressive, but I didn’t have the emotional, visceral reaction that I had with similarly huge releases from 2007. With There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men and Once, I felt like seeing those films affected my life, changed my point of view in some way. This movie just didn’t have that sort of impact on me, but from all that you’ve pointed out that I didn’t notice, maybe I should give it a second viewing.
Mike: As you might have guessed, I was definitely impressed with this movie, and although we didn’t mention it in our discussion I loved George Clooney’s performance, which I would say is the best of his career. For a first feature, it’s remarkably self-assured; I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing more excellent pictures from Tony Gilroy (maybe they’ll let him take a crack at the Bourne series, for which he’s written all the screenplays). For me, maybe the biggest surprise of 2007.