|Best Picture nominee Michael Clayton (2007)|
This is a guest post from Robin Hitchcock.
Michael Clayton seems like an unlikely Best Picture nominee: a legal thriller that I would have sworn was adapted from an airport novel if I didn’t know that it was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. Can't you see yourself reading this plot description on a dust jacket while you half-listen to gate change announcements? Michael Clayton is the fixer for the elite Manhattan law firm Kenner, Bach & Leeden, making the deals and greasing the wheels for the tough cases that need to go away and stay under the radar. But when he's sent to clean up the mess when his firm's legendary attorney Arthur Eden goes off his medication and starts sabotaging their defense against a billion-dollar toxic tort class action, Clayton is reunited with his long-dormant conscience... and it might cost him his life.
It's a film completely lacking in the epic trappings or topical social commentary usually characterizing Best Picture nominees, especially back in 2007 when the field was still only open to five films. Sure, it has a slick look, dashes of symbolic pretension (sorry, I have no. earthly. clue. what the horses mean) and an over-the-top and sometimes offensively unrealistic portrayal of mental illness, but it seems a more likely contender for heavy basic-cable rotation than for Best Picture.
Except for the part where it is really, really good.
Tilda Swinton's phenomenal, Oscar-winning performance as Karen Crowder, general counsel for the toxic tort defendant United Northfield and villain of the story, does much of the work of pulling the film into the prestige league. It's the best kind of supporting acting: a tremendous richness of character is developed in a few short scenes, leaving an impression so great it is hard to believe she doesn't appear in more of the film.
Swinton demonstrates incredible control, imbuing characterization into the barely perceptible twitches of individual facial muscles. [It's worlds apart from Tom Wilkinson's scenerey-chomping (but also nominated) performance as the unbalanced Arthur, which makes that character seem even more out of place in the film.] In one of my favorite scenes, Karen awkwardly contracts with a hit man with a light-voiced forced professionalism that gives me flashbacks to my worst phone interviews, while reading over a stolen memorandum held in a hand stuffed in a plastic bag. She seems so comfortable with her improvised evidence-prevention, and it stands in such strong contrast with her hesitant negotiations, that we learn a great deal about what lines this character has already crossed that have brought her to the point of contract killing. Even Swinton's HAND can act, when it's hidden away in a plastic bag.
It's a terrific performance in a rich role, but unfortunately some of that richness of character is rife with sexism, or at least relies on the sexism of the audience. We first see the character breaking down in a bathroom stall, pouring sweat broadly staining the pits of her conservative blouse. Her first dialogue is anxious practice for an interview discussing her recent promotion to general counsel as she dresses in the morning. Karen sits on her hotel bed in a practical nude bra and slip, posture slumped enough that some rolls of fat form on her midsection. Rarely is a half-dressed woman so de-sexualized in Hollywood film, and that captures our interest, but only because it relies on our presumption of sexist exploitation. So much of the complexity of the character is derived from our sexist expectations of what a cold-blooded corporate killer would be like and the "feminine vulnerability" (a phrase woefully common in reveiwers' discussions of Swinton's performance) of Karen Crowder. Swinton's performance is strong enough to transcend this and actually earn the mantle of "complex villain", but it is nevertheless problematic from a feminist perspective.
And my brow furrow deepens when I consider the only other female role with any meat to it—Anna, one of the class action plaintiffs (played by Merritt Wever). Anna is a young, painfully naïve country girl, and her "purity" draws a deep love from Arthur, who calls her "God's perfect little creature." Arthur's love for Anna inspires his crusade to expose U/North's guilt. [Sidebar: As a lawyer, I hate hate hate when characters are portrayed as heroes for betraying their clients when they find out they are guilty. That is not heroic. It is unethical and WRONG. I'm looking at you, Perry Mason! And Matlock, you oughtta be disbarred! /rant] So: female character that only exists to provide motivation for male character? Check! But why stop the sexist cliches there? Anna is flattered by the (creepy and grossly ethics-violating) attention that Arthur gives her, even after he strips down and professes his love to her while she is being deposed about HER PARENTS DYING OF CANCER. She accepts the plane ticket to New York he buys for her even though she's never been farther away from home than Milwaukee, and has to lower her voice to an awed whisper when she recounts that the ticket cost eight hundred dollars. Anna's simplicity and innocence stands in start contrast to Karen's ruthless professionalism, creating an unpleasant dichotomy where the dumb, docile country mouse is "God's perfect creature" and the professional, competent city mouse is Pure Evil. I doubt this message was intentional, but it still grates. The lesson is that passing the Bechdel test (Michael Clayton flunks on the second prong) not only appeases us feminists but helps avoid undesired inferences of sexism.
Despite these shortcomings, I thoroughly enjoyed Michael Clayton. The movie is worth watching just to bask in the awesomeness of Tilda Swinton's performance, which truly is one for the ages, but it's got plenty else to recommend it as well. It's gripping, good-looking, thought-provoking, and hey, George Clooney's face is on screen like 90% of the time.
Robin Hitchcock has a card in her wallet that proves she's an attorney, but she practices writing more than she practices law. You can read her series of reviews of wedding movies at her blog HitchDied and her reviews of everything else at The Double R Diner.