The title figure of Michael Clayton is the designated fixer for the elite Manhattan law firm of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, touted as a "miracle worker" but more modest in his self-assessment: "I'm not a miracle worker, I'm a janitor. The smaller the mess, the easier it is for me to clean it up." We first see him in action on a little hit-and-run mess. Called away from an unfriendly game of poker in the wee hours, he demonstrates himself, to the client's spluttering outrage, to have a lot to be modest about. And afterwards he appears to be anything but a man in control when he pulls his car over on a country road and is awfully lucky to be communing with three horses on the hillside when his car blows up. This is our cue to flash back to a bigger mess, a three-billion-dollar class action suit against his firm's biggest client, United Northfield, or UNorth for short, an agrochemical corporation charged with the manufacture of a lethally toxic weed-killer. The suit had proceeded slowly and steadily -- especially slowly -- until the brilliant bipolar defense attorney stripped off his clothes in the middle of a videotaped deposition and began to babble: "Try to make believe this is not just madness." A job for a miracle worker for sure. But the in-house legal advisor for the beleaguered corporation, checking the fixer's background and noting that after seventeen years in the firm he's still not a partner, reasonably wants to know: "Who is this guy?"
Aside from being George Clooney, he doesn't look like much. Crushed under a mountain of debt, sworn off the gambling habit (notwithstanding the prefatory relapse at the poker table), run ragged by his job, begging his boss for an advance and getting the brush-off, he has little time for his neglected son and none for a shave. In addition to all that, Clooney has firmly suppressed the head-waggling smugness that so often chills his charm. In fact he has sunken into the part quite deeply and depressively. We keep waiting to see some sign of a miracle. And waiting. Meanwhile his counterparts at UNorth, the under-the-radar troubleshooters, exercise far less patience and compunction. And as the time-line catches up with the car bomb, the screws of suspense start to tighten uncomfortably. In its bald essentials -- the soulless law firm, the monolithic corporation, the robotic hit men, the stirrings of conscience and poses of piety, the mechanics of comeuppance -- the film is fairly standard-issue. But screenwriter (the Bourne series) and first-time director Tony Gilroy, beginning with the nonlinear narrative arrangement, has devised an all-over strategy of tease and obfuscation, very clever at disguising the lack of cleverness. Very clever, that is, in presentation, not in plot, character, idea. If we sometimes grow weary of not knowing what the hell people are talking about, we never altogether get weary of wanting to know.
Gone Baby Gone (no punctuation) marks the directing debut of Ben Affleck, who stays behind the camera and cedes the spotlight to his younger brother Casey, in the role of Patrick Kenzie, the Boston missing-persons private eye ("I find the people that started in the cracks and then fell through"), along with his "snooty" partner Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), featured in a series of detective novels by Dennis Lehane. Mystic River, outside the series, first brought the name of Lehane to my attention; and always on the lookout for an undiscovered crime writer, I tried one of the Kenzie-Gennaro books and found it dreadful: preposterous tricksy plot; embarrassing heroes; posturing author. (Let me take this opportunity to recommend, from nearby on the mystery shelf, Donna Leon's splendid series on the dauntless navigator of Venetian labyrinths, Commissario Guido Brunetti.) The plot of this one, starting sensibly enough with the vanished daughter of a drug-addicted and derelict single mom, proves to be again preposterous: the damaging comparison here would be to the penetrable murk of In the Valley of Elah, so much more involving by virtue of its plausibility. But Affleck, meaning Casey more than Ben, works wonders to humanize Lehane's literary creation, partly just by his youthful delicacy and his chip-on-the-shoulder defensiveness about it. An even more unprepossessing hero than Clooney's Clayton, he gains stature by holding his ground, however sullenly, against some highly showy performances (Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Amy Ryan, Morgan Freeman, among them). And the other Affleck, Ben, does some nice impressionistic detailing of his native Bean Town, and some candid thumbnailing of assorted lowlifes, before he succumbs to a muddying plot and a gagging resolution.
Reservation Road, from a nongenre novel by John Burnham Schwartz, bears a first-glance resemblance to the Claude Chabrol thriller ca. 1970, This Man Must Die, in both of which a bereaved father tracks down the hit-and-run killer of his young son. But Chabrol's killer, from a genre novel by Nicholas Blake (a/k/a Cecil Day-Lewis, Poet Laureate of England, father of Daniel Day-Lewis), was as loutish and loathsome as any avenger could wish, while the killer here, a father of a young boy himself, is racked by conscience and beckoned by confession. Terry George's film, his first since Hotel Rwanda, ends up bearing a resemblance to more recent Chabrol films in its reluctance, if not outright refusal, to function as a thriller, drifting instead into the realm of the weepie, with a suitably damp cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Ruffalo, the spectrally beautiful Jennifer Connelly. (Antoni Corone, who also plays a cop opposite Phoenix in We Own the Night, stays admirably dry as the policeman in charge of the case.) The converging-paths narrative design, both before and after the accident, is a tad heavy-handed, but in so small a New England town it doesn't take long for the paths to converge: when the obsessed father hires a lawyer to ride the police, the lawyer is none other than the killer, now in a unique position to keep tabs on the investigation. (His ex-wife, for extra measure, was the victim's music teacher.) After that, the main source of suspense is the question of how close to the top, or how far over it, the emoting will go.
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A better thriller than any of these is El Aura, the best thing I saw in last spring's San Diego Latino Film Festival, at which time I said I imagined it would eventually receive a commercial release. That hasn't happened, but the festival programmers are bringing it back themselves to the UltraStar Mission Valley, for a week starting Friday, as the October offering in their monthly film series. If tempted, don't hesitate, don't delay.