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Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton may turn out to be the earliest major Oscar candidate out of the gate, but it's also a commendable rarity: a film of genuine artistic ambition that is also extravagantly entertaining.

The intricate puzzles of Michael Clayton 

Bagman on the brink

click to enlarge Michael Clayton is perhaps George Clooney's best performance to date. - PHOTO BY MYLES ARONOWITZ/ WARNER BROS

Finally, the serious season at the movies is upon us. That may draw cheers in some quarters, but it's not, of course, always an unmixed blessing. Sometimes this time of year rolls around and what we see from Hollywood are clunking engines of pretension that have little to recommend them apart from astronomical budgets and awards-craving earnestness.

Not this year. Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton may turn out to be the earliest major Oscar candidate out of the gate, but it's also a commendable rarity: a film of genuine artistic ambition that is also extravagantly entertaining. In most movies, those two qualities seldom merge persuasively, and I won't pretend that their mesh is entirely perfect here. Yet Michael Clayton's achievements on both fronts are so fascinating and compelling as to make it, in my mind, the best new Hollywood movie so far in 2007.

Describing what makes the film so captivating, though, is a challenge, and I have no doubt that many reviews and articles will miss the mark. To be sure, George Clooney gives an extraordinary performance in the title role, as a bottom-of-the-barrel New York lawyer who gets embroiled in a complex case of corporate corruption. The film's muted look and top-notch acting will undoubtedly bring deserved kudos to Gilroy, a screenwriter making his directorial debut. And I'd bet money that various reviewers will describe the film's dramatic power and thematic thrust via comparisons to certain dark, politically tinged thrillers of the 1970s (you can guess the titles).

But the latter parallels are, I think, particularly misleading. Because what truly sets Michael Clayton apart is not the acting, the directing or passing similarities to movies of 30 years ago. It is, to the contrary, something very much of this moment: a screenplay that takes a number of smart but very nervy chances with audience understanding, and does so in a way that catalyzes and transforms everything else about the film.

You will have noted that few movies tell stories in a straightforward manner anymore. Ever since the advent of Quentin Tarantino, we have been living in the age of the fractured narrative. At this point, there are a number of things to lament about the trend: It's become all too faddish, and it's too often used to jazz up stories of dubious dramatic worth. Yet cinema's plunge into willful storytelling discombobulation also seems to reflect factors in the surrounding culture that are only accelerating: As multitasking becomes a lifelong mindset, and people grow used to rapidly processing information from multiple sources, they not only accept and understand multidimensional stories, but come to expect and even find a certain kind of meaningful postmodern delight in them.

Of the various kinds of narrative fragmentation that have become commonplace in the last decade, perhaps the most frequently deployed is the Multiple Storylines model, which dates back to D.W. Griffith's Intolerance (1916) and, alas, reaches the point of onanistic self-importance (and/or "mystical" portentousness) in films like Magnolia and Babel. The next most common, arguably, is the Scrambled Chronology model, which attained a level of poetic purposefulness and resonance in Pulp Fiction seldom equaled by the many films that imitated it.

A third form of fragmentation, meanwhile, is what I call the Jigsaw Puzzle model, the technique brilliantly used in Michael Clayton. All three models (which often overlap in practice) act to increase our imaginary involvement in a film by obliging us to connect discrete and seemingly disparate story elements; where in Multiple Storylines it's separate narrative threads that must be connected, and in Scrambled Chronology it's different slices of time, in a Jigsaw Puzzle script virtually every scene stands apart from the others, leaving the viewer to discern—or construct—the presumed pattern of meaning that unites them. (For examples, see Gus Van Sant's Elephant or Michael Haneke's Caché.)

click to enlarge Tilda Swinton works the phones and computers in Michael Clayton. - PHOTO BY MYLES ARONOWITZ/ WARNER BROS

Here's how this works in the opening sections of Gilroy's film. We hear the voice of a man (Tom Wilkinson), evidently a lawyer, ranting Lear-like against his profession. We see Michael Clayton (Clooney), evidently a divorced lawyer, picking up his young son from his ex's home. In a Manhattan skyscraper at night, we witness a man (Sydney Pollack) who appears to be a senior partner in his law firm refuse a Wall Street Journal reporter's questions about a supposed merger that, in fact, his firm seems to be frantically working on as he speaks; meanwhile, a professional-looking woman (Tilda Swinton) sweats profusely in a bathroom, as if overwhelmed by anxiety.

The same night finds Clayton in a poker game in Chinatown. He is, it seems, a gambling addict who's just fallen off the wagon. Part of the conversation alludes to a restaurant he owns, or has owned; it's hard to tell. His cell phone rings. Soon he's up in Westchester County, being yelled at by one of his firm's clients for not being able to cover up a traffic offense instantly. And not long after that, he stops by a roadside to look at some deer and his car explodes.

What's going on here? Lots, obviously. More than we can process right away. Yet while many movies nowadays tantalize us by starting out with a quick burst of scenes that have no immediately obvious connection, Michael Clayton pushes the technique to disorienting extremes, making it a guiding principle throughout.

Until fairly recently, its degree of fragmentation would have been considered so radical as to make a film incomprehensible. Most of the little explanatory connections that we expect in movies Gilroy simply strips away and tosses in the trash, unseen. Naturally, since this is a big Hollywood movie starring George Clooney, we go along for the ride, trusting it will eventually add up. And given that many movies have been employing such devices recently, we can reasonably assume that Michael Clayton's challenges to our comprehension are ones we're equipped to meet.

But the sum of this unorthodoxy is surprising nonetheless. At some point, we must realize that what we're enjoying—and finding meaningful—is less the story than the storytelling, and that the most engaging facet of the latter is our complex, bedazzled complicity in it. We take pleasure not just in thinking out the story but also, more significantly, in thinking out our thinking regarding the story; our own imaginary involvement becomes a part of the movie's multileveled fascinations.

click to enlarge No country for old men: Tom Wilkinson wanders Times Square in Michael Clayton. - PHOTO BY MYLES ARONOWITZ/ WARNER BROS

This is, no doubt, a very tricky enterprise at the script stage. How does the writer figure out how to deprive the audience of scads of standard information without losing them entirely? Gilroy is a top-drawer Hollywood screenwriter responsible for, among other things, the Jason Bourne films, and Michael Clayton obviously represents his attempt to move beyond the simple formulas of pulp action toward something more sophisticated and artistically original. He must have learned from his previous enterprises, however, the value of making every narrative moment as forceful and charged as possible.

That's one thing that makes the fragmentation of Michael Clayton play on a scene by scene basis. Gilroy writes tense, idiomatic dialogue that—even while it too dispenses with or disarranges the expository data we expect—leads us into volatile, revealing human interactions, whether between a concerned father and his semi-alienated 8-year-old son, or between two professional assassins and their victim. He also creates characters who give us credible entrée into vividly rendered worlds ranging from Midwestern jail cells to white-shoe law firms to compromised suburban mansions.

When you look past its moment-to-moment oblique vibrancy and the intricate puzzlements of its overall presentation, Michael Clayton leaves us with two things, neither especially novel but together undeniably compelling.

One is a portrait of a lawyer touching bottom both professionally and personally. Michael Clayton (perhaps Clooney's best performance to date) comes from a blue-collar New York law enforcement family, was a successful D.A., but now is a "fixer" designated to clean up messes for the top guys at his midtown law firm. His marriage has failed and so has the restaurant he was hoping would give him an out. His gambling is creeping back. He is much like the protagonist of Sidney Lumet's The Verdict, a lawyer looking for a redemption that only his work can provide.

The film is, at the same time, a drama in which a giant corporation becomes not only a legal antagonist but also a lethal adversary that both ignores and subverts the law. This aspect of the story, which emerges very gradually from the deliberate complexity of Gilroy's tale, takes us into the territory of The Parallax View, The China Syndrome and similar tales of multinational mendacity. Does the film have anything original to say on the subject? Not really; but the way it dramatizes it is both transfixing and haunting.

That applies to the movie overall. It has its flaws (a subplot about a ne'er-do-well brother of Michael simply doesn't add up) and questionable ideas (especially the misogyny in the portrayal of Swinton's neurotic corporate climber). But some movies manifest greatness in their matter, and others in their manner. Michael Clayton is definitely the latter, a film in which state-of-the-art storytelling connects the dark complexities of our imaginative grasp of the world to those of the world itself. It not only mesmerizes, but bids us to look to ourselves to discover the root of its hypnotic, transformative power.

Michael Clayton opens Friday throughout the Triangle.

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