Michael Clayton is released on DVD this week just as we gear up for the Oscars, which I’m hoping will be a memorable night for writer-director Tony Gilroy, because this is one film that deserves to be recognised as a modern classic.
I missed it at the cinema towards the end of 2007 despite very tempting trailers which promised an off-beat take on the legal thriller genre. At the time I didn’t realise just how off-beat that take would be.
At first glance, in terms of accepted Hollywood screenwriting principles, it appears to be all over the bloody shop.
It opens with a frenetic voice-over monologue by a crazed attorney that lasts for four whole pages, accompanied by shots of a New York law firm’s offices waking up for the morning. Then we see senior partner Marty Bachs fend off a call from a reporter about some settlement that’s about to happen in the U/North case. He calls her bluff and hangs up and asks where someone called Karen Crowder is.
She seems to be the woman who’s hiding in the toilet having a panic attack. Okay, I’m intrigued.
Then we cut to George Clooney in the title role, at the table of some all night poker game in Chinatown. There’s a couple of pages of inconsequential dialogue about some restaurant business he got into with a partner that doesn’t seem to have turned out well. Then he gets a call from the law firm we’re already acquainted with and has to drive up state to go help some piece of yuppie scum who’s committed a hit and run. By now we’re getting the feeling that Michael is this law firm’s fixer. He does the shitty jobs in the grey area outside the law.
We spend five pages on this encounter… and it’s not what the story is about! We never see Mr Hit-And-Run-Yuppie-Scum again. And it’s not as if the scene is there to show us Michael’s strengths – he denies that he’s a ‘miracle worker’ and worms his way out of the job. Nothing about the encounter indicates that Michael has any particular talent.
Then he’s driving away at dawn, escaping, and mysteriously stops and gets out of the car to go and look at a group of horses in a meadow. This is strange. Then his car explodes.
This is on page 16. Most other writers would have laid out the main characters, the genre, the themes and vital plot information in the first ten pages – the way every screenwriting guru tells us to. But this story doesn’t really start until page 30, with the news that Arthur Edens (the crazed lawyer ranting over the first four minutes of this film) has stripped naked in a deposition room in Milwaukee.
So far, so unconventional. But actually, when you read the script, you realise it’s all there in those first ten pages, just the way it should be; it’s just not obvious. And that’s how this whole film plays. It’s the kind of film that sneaks up on you from just out of your peripheral vision and infects your soul before you even know it’s there.
The rest of the film, while dealing with that central conflict of the U/North case and how Michael will handle it, takes a great many diversions that don’t seem relevant, which adds to the uneasy, narcotic atmosphere of a living nightmare. It is anything but a by-the-book legal thriller. But what it does (unlike No Country For Old Men) is deliver that confrontation at the end that we’ve been building towards, and with a closing line to die for.
Quite by chance this weekend, a friend mentioned one of Tony Gilroy’s earlier scripts I’ve always loved, Dolores Claiborne. It’s a very underrated film, and derives much of its power from a near perfect script. I also hadn’t even registered that he’d written all the Bourne films too (I know, I know, but I have such limited space on my mind’s hard drive).
So Tony Gilroy is my new favourite screenwriter, and I hope he gets an Oscar this time. A script as good as Tony Gilroy on ‘Michael Clayton’