I'm not sure I've ever seen George Clooney be so interesting, doing so little. In Michael Clayton, he gives a stripped-down performance that doesn't ignore his star persona or charisma, but deploys it like a character actor might: as an image to wrestle with, a costume to be turned inside out, a phantom with which he shadow-boxes. His "Oscar moment" comes near the end of the film, in his showdown with Tilda Swinton, but the truly wonderful scenes are at the beginning, when Clayton sits at a seedy backroom poker table and gambles his soul away. Clooney is incredibly still, and very quiet, and he reads his lines with an air both casual (there's nothing "actorly" about it, it almost feels overheard) and weighty (like any good lawyer, Michael is precise in his intonations and timbre, in the meanings his words convey). His voice sounds dipped in Scotch, slightly raspy, and all the more alluring for it: when he stares at his cards and mumbles a studied response to a question about his failed restaurant, Clooney dances across the words like a be-bop pianist, finding places to land his intonations that feel loose, suprising, and just right. Gone is the TV star who was once devastatingly-but-accurately parodied by MST3K as a "nod, smile, head bob" actor (in their review of Batman & Robin), and in his place stands a sharp minimalist who knows what to do with every tiny gesture.
Time and the limited runs of the local Apollo theater meant I didn't catch up with the film until this past Oscar weekend, but it's been on my mind ever since. Glancing at some reviews online, I see that the NY Daily News critic Jack Matthews, writing of Clooney, thought of exactly the same peformances I did: the brilliantly focused and very poignant turns of Paul Newman in Absence of Malice and The Verdict, where remembrances of Newman's youthful humor and virility are essential backdrops for comprehending the sad and broken men he plays in those films. In an interview with Time, Clooney even referenced The Verdict as a model, saying, "I've certainly ripped off Paul Newman three or four times, [though] not as well. Watch him at the end of the monologue in [The Verdict], where he's talking to the jury. Actors usually load up for a monologue. He finishes it and he starts to talk again, and then he walks away." That's not a terrible description of Clooney's own performance, its perfectly calibrated balance of naturalism and artifice, or of Michael Clayton as a whole.
Billed in its intial publicity as a conspiracy thriller along the lines of Klute or 3 Days of the Condor, Michael Clayton feels less like a genre exercise and more like an extended, ensemble-driven meditation on performance. Films about the law often take on this quality, since the genre presents any number of opportunities for big monologues, dramatic twists, and the "look at me!" acting moments that they allow. From The Life of Emile Zola 's Paul Muni to Inherit The Wind's Tracy & March, from Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson facing off in A Few Good Men to Tom Hanks and Jason Robards each munching on the scenery in different ways in Philadelphia, there's nothing like a lawyer to make an actor get his Master Thespian on. Michael Clayton allows for those moments, especially with Tom Wilkinson's role, but the pleasure of the film is its overall avoidance of melodrama. It's there in the narrative's twists and turns, to be sure, but the approach of writer-director Tony Gilroy and his cast is to underplay, to naturalize and make important moments feel eavesdropped on. I haven't seen a mainstream Hollywood drama in awhile that feels so offhand and opaque in its exposition; that tells you what you need to know but does it in mumbles and broken sentences, in fragments and shrugs, looks and gestures; that feels no compunction to fill you in on the backstories of all the characters it's introducing (the last film that had this quality for me was Syriana, which shares not only a star with Clayton, but also cinematographer Robert Elswit, a master of complex surfaces that hide as much as they reveal). From its wrinkled suits to its cluttered offices and hotel rooms, Michael Clayton feels lived-in to its core, which makes its more outrageous turns more palatable: even as cars explode and actors gear up for final monologues, one always feels that the climaxes are less rah-rah high points than pieces cut out of a much larger, more complex narrative cloth.
Clooney is very good, and so is Swinton, in a difficult role that's too often been reduced in reviews to the "villain" of the piece. I think such a reading betrays the spirit of the film-- where everyone, including Michael, is shaded in gray-- but also Swinton's sad, funny and rather sympathetic performance; it's a small part, so Swinton must telegraph everything with her face, her roving eyes and terse mouth filling in the gaps in the script. Wilkinson is fine, too, although it takes awhile for his method to register: he seems like the most obvious and symbolic performer in the movie-- the naive cynic-turned-prophet that was a cliche even when Paddy Chayesfksy offered it in Network-- and some of his early scenes are so loaded with hammy moments that they're hard to watch (and jar up against Clooney's minimalist exasperation). But there's a moment midway through the film, when Clooney confronts Wilkinson in a New York alley, that's striking in the way it turns Wilkinson's character around: you realize that underneath his hippy-dippy exterior, there's a sharp, organized and predatory mind that knows exactly how to use the public image its constructing, and in that moment Wilkinson is as chilling (and mesmerizing) as any of the film's purported villains.
That play of truth and fiction, surface and depth-- or what the tagline, in a wonderful metacommentary on acting, describes as "the truth [that] can be adjusted"-- is Clayton's major theme: not "know thyself" (as a more standard Hollywood or better yet, indie monstrosity might have it) but "which self"? And how will we know it when we find it? With that in mind, the most impressive and interesting performance in the film is not Clooney's or Swinton's or Wilkinson's, as very fine as they all are, but Sydney Pollack's, as Michael's exasperated, unknowable boss. As a director, Pollack can be alternately wonderful and frustrating, but his on-screen appearances are, for me, a source of joy; no one does exhaustion and "what the hell?" attitude quite like Pollack, or has offered so many nice recent turns as powerful-yet-worn-out professional men. Look at him in his first scene, the quiet center amidst the chaos of a late-night boardroom session: we come across him in mid-conversation, and he's so focused that we long to know what was said before the camera reached him, what the rest of the conversation was. His minion tells him a reporter's on the phone; he looks at the minion with an annoyance he can't quite repress, sighs with his eyes and takes the phone. His conversation-- a telling-off of the reporter that in another actor's hands would be player for gotcha-style laughs or mustache-twisting villainy-- is delivered in matter-of-fact, banal tones.
Banality is the key to understanding Pollack's importance: he's so good as the corporate grouch that he gets overlooked, and fades into the background, but the film couldn't work without him: brilliant, precise, and utterly drained, he's what Michael might become, twenty years down the road, and the prospect is both fascinating and a little terrifying. At the same time, he's not, necesarily, a bad guy, and he's ironically more of a straight shooter (even if we don't like his aim) than our titular hero. And finding the banal core within the legal thriller is, paradoxically, Michael Clayton's triumph. In his review of The Verdict, Roger Ebert wrote, ""The Verdict" has a lot of truth in it, right down to a great final scene in which Newman, still drinking, finds that if you wash it down with booze, victory tastes just like defeat." Michael Clayton's possibly not even that lucky: his moment of triumph at the end seems to end just as it begins, and feels far more ambiguous: as we fade out on Michael in a cab going nowhere in particular, his face seems poised between a revelation of the self, and reforming into yet another public mask.