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Have You Ever Been Convoluted?
by Jon Schuller

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I've always been a proponent of the so-called K.I.S.S. System, or Keep It Simple Smart. I'm not good with complicated. Of course, daily life can impose complications on us anytime, with or without our approval. Movies, over the years, have become more complicated as plots and sub-plots become inter-woven and assorted characters are moved in and out. Many films have been adapted from famous novels or real-life stories with complex backgrounds and many scenes taking place in varied locations. Take the contemporary James Bond films, for example or look at the "Bourne" series. Many science fiction films were purposely complicated because an uncertain future world was meant to confuse or frighten us. Blade Runner's a good example and so is The Fifth Element. Holding an audience's interest for 90 minutes or more takes a lot of thought and direction. The picture doesn't necessarily have to be a drama or a horror film. I'm a big fan of detective and mystery fiction novels and when they come to the Big Screen, I try to get to see them immediately. The Departed was a pretty complicated film, especially since one of the characters was an undercover police agent posing as a gang member and another person was a protégé of the mob guy who posed as a cop. Cellphone conversations were purposely hard to follow. The list of films like this is long, needless to say. But that's the whole point of this: forcing us to think fast as the action we're watching moves quickly ahead of us in
many different directions.

In October, 2007, a film premiered that had all the disparate elements I've been discussing: mystery, a complicated plot, many different characters and an ending that was, to say the least, surprising but satisfying. Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Ken Howard and Sidney Pollack, shows us an attorney with a large, prestigious New York law firm - Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen – who is the company's "fixer." For the firm's clients, he can discover facts, loopholes and compromising situations that may ultimately help the firm help their clients.

Michael Clayton is involved with a case of a plaintiff who wants to sue a large chemical company, UNorth, for selling carcinogenic fertilizers around the world. He has personally gotten himself into trouble with a local loan shark over his brother's drug habit which in turn used up money for a restaurant they were going to open together.

Clayton also has to help one of the main attorneys in the firm, Arthur Edens (Wilkinson) who's has had a psychotic episode (after stopping his meds) at a deposition about the class-action suit against UNorth. Clayton has to travel to Milwaukee, bail Arthur out of jail and then finds out Arthur escaped his motel room. Karen Crowder (Swinton), the general counsel for UNorth, discovers that Arthur has gotten hold of sensitive UNorth memoes as her boss, Don Jeffries (Howard) puts her in touch with two nefarious characters, Verne
and Iker, professional hitmen, (Robert Prescott and Terry Serpico) to follow Arthur and, eventually – on her say so - to kill him, making it look like a suicide.

Clayton is not only unhappy about how Arthur ended up dead, he's also suspicious of the entire episode and speaks to his other brother, Gene (Sean Cullen), a New York City police detective. Michael gets permission to enter Arthur's apartment, still a crime scene, even as Verne and Iker are sitting outside the apartment in their ordinary sedan. He discovers a receipt from a copy making shop for memoes from UNorth Arthur had in his possession. Clayton is arrested for trespassing and Gene bails him out. The bad guys are now following Clayton everywhere. Michael wants to tell his boss, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), what he's found but Marty gives him a check for $80,000 as a bonus, plus a renewal of his contract. Michael realizes that Marty knows about UNorth's cover-up.

As Michael drives to Westchester County, to see a client, still being followed by the hitmen, his GPS stops working. The bad guys have planted a bomb in his car behind the unit. Clayton has been affected by all of the events of the past week and suddenly stops at field in the countryside, recognizing what looks like a familiar scene from a book his son showed him. While walking towards some horses his car suddenly explodes and catches fire, scaring the animals. He runs to the car, throws in personal identity cards and a watch even as the
hitmen drive away assuming he's dead.

Back at a large hotel in Manhattan, UNorth is holding a meeting in which Karen proposes a new settlement agreement to the board of directors. She is excused from the deliberations and goes into the hall, where she is completely surprised and frightened by the appearance of the man she also ordered to be killed, Michael Clayton. She's already on the verge of a nervous breakdown as he tells her in no uncertain terms he wants $10 million from her for his silence. She agrees as Michael walks away, handing his phone to his brother, Gene, having recorded the entire conversation. Jeffries and Crowder are both arrested on the spot.

Michael Clayton received 6 Academy Award nominations with Tilda Swinton winning Best Supporting Actress. It also received awards and nominations from BAFTA, the Golden Globes, the Broadcast Film Critics, the Chicago Film Critics, plus 9 other organizations across the entire movie spectrum. This is a great movie and, despite its intricate, complex plot, has no trouble holding our interest. Just when we think we've got it figured out, just when we think we understand what any of the characters are doing or meaning to do or say, they surprise us. George Clooney is pretty much perfectly cast to play the elusive but brilliant Clayton. The other players are simply marvelous. Like some movies I've written about in the past, everything in Michael Clayton works. It will capture and hold you for 119 minutes.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Homage: Respect or Reverence Paid

There's a Call for You. Please Tell Them to Wait.

20 Before. 20 After. 20 Since.

Sit. Relax. Watch. Enjoy. Repeat.

One Is All It Usually Takes

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 29 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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