Michael Clayton (2007, USA, Tony Gilroy)
John Grisham for exceptionally bleeding hearts.
I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this, picking apart the numerous implausible aspects of the plot. Suffice to highlight that the wonderfully satisfying climax in the hotel lobby when he sets up the bust is utter jive - because he had absolutely no knowledge about who in particular to entrap, who in particular at the pesticide corporation opened the hunting season on the law firm. It is the usual case of the first act being a lot better than act two. It's quite fascinating the way the toy is wound up but watching it walk across the room while it beats a drum is not such a great trick. The weaknesses of the film as a sample from the dramatic-suspense tray are probably no worse than the rest of the fare off that tray, which does not have the option of resorting to visceral action sequences to "connect" events. So let us attend to the drama of MC.
Well, I've already tagged it - bleeding heart - so it just remains to bag it. There is no shortage of corruption in the world, conducted in the upper echelons to be sure. But the issue is not corruption. Its the existence of the upper echelons in the first place. Sinister cover-ups of damaging information that the public has the right to know, executive cabals that repress the truth and even resort to murder in the service of their particular careers, and all the ancillary agencies involved - from the high-powered legal eagles to the surveillance killers on the street - it's all so "something is rotten in the state of Denmark," taking it for granted that monarchy is legitimate, if only the rightful King were on the throne. Take a company like Monsanto. No doubt they engage in some skull-and-dagger corporate tactics. But for the most part, they use their power to make it lawful for them to privaize, commodify, monopolize and market the biospheric commons right down to the molecular genetic level. Used to be, a farmer could save the seed from a crop and plant it the following year. Not any more. Monsanto "designs" seed to grow into plants that have no seed, compelling the direct agricultural producer to purchase seed every growing season from Monsanto. No Hollywood horror story here. Just good ol' capitalist appropriation of the planet Earth. But I digress. There are a few toes sticking out of the body bag in which I place MC and it would be unfair of me to zip up the sack as if this were not so.
I really like the depiction of the female lawyer bad guy. The actress does a fine job with it - she won the Oscar no? - and the character is well conceived in the screenplay. That she is a woman surrounded by men with power over her, a relatively young person panicked about satisfying the expectations of senior executives, an individual who believes herself to be at a crossroads - all of this was addressed with dramatic power. I especially liked the business of her in her underwear rehersing her speech to the media, intercut with her in her pressed suit actually delivering it. The fact that she was promoted in order to be the point-man for the upcoming litigation suggests a sort of Kim Campbell fall-guy scenerio in the minds of the her superiors. And she took the bait. Boy did she take the bait. I really respected her portrayal in the film.
Turning to the crazy lawyer who cuts loose and wants to make the world safe for organic peaches, initially I loved him but he deteriorated into a plot mechanism. At first I was quite excited by his hippie outburst and I eagerly awaited his full expression as a wonderful footnote to Howard Beale in Network. But this did not happen. He turned out to be little more than a bi-polar Erin Brokovich, ostensibly more profound than the one played by Julia Roberts because, hey, the actor in MC is obviously not getting by on his sex appeal.
Speaking of not getting by on sex appeal, Clooney is good. Not a chance in hell he was ever gonna beat Day-Lewis for the trophy, but a solid performance with some nuanced moments, the likes of which we have not seen from the actor before. His communion with the horses, especially the second time. His interactions with his relatives. And kudos to the writing here as well. So often these sorts of dramatic characters are abstracted from everyday lives, unrealistically intensified by elimination of the mudane. Michael Clayton is not a rich character study on par with Plainview in There Will Be Blood, but he is at least realistically embroiled in a number of personal situations that impact on the main plot and make his ultimate decision in that main plot credible. (This is not to say that all the threads of the plot come together plausibly, see above). I will shine the spotlight on one incidental scene that genuinely moved me. When he stops the car in the middle of the street and turns to his boy to tell him - not that he loves him - but rather that he respects him, that he sees in him the deepest of human integrity. I liked the way it was written and I liked the way Clooney did it. Touched me.
Th-th-tha-tha-that's all folks! Except to close by tipping the hat to the opening of the film, the voice over of the crazy lawyer's declaration of emancipatory intent while the shots move through the office buildings at night, zeroing-in on the law firm in full battle positions - hip introduction. If only the rest of the film was as radical as that starting juxtaposition.
There Will Be Blood (2007, USA, P.T. Anderson)
Since the Oscars were just doled out, I want to agree with you from the outset that this is a better film than No Country For Old Men. I'll spill some ink on this comparison. You have read the book on which the latter film is based and I have not. I also have not read the book from which TWBB was adapted and I suspect you haven't either. Still, I will venture to say that the difference between the films with respect to thematic depth probably has to do with this difference as it may be found in the original literary sources. This is just my prejudice in favour of Upton Sinclair speaking now. I have read only his most famous book, The Jungle, but this novel alone complemented by what I know of his professional and political biography - the guy was a life-long working-class literary realist and socialist activist... but no matter. Because it is possible to judge the films themselves.
NCFOM is fatalistically, even a touch nihilistically, caught up in the negative inversion of the American "western," not just stylistically as a genre, but at the level of national mythology. It does not penetrate deeper than this. It may feel more profound than previous Coen outings because it is less ironic. But the less humourous, more sombre tone of NCFOM does not mean that it interprets the mythology in terms of ideology in order to subject it to any sort of critique. The film is content to enter into the mystique that it contends is obsolete by way of a supposed anti-nostalgia. Apparently many reviewers found this not at all "supposed" but I'm not so sure, the elegant style of the story-telling and cinematography notwithstanding.
TWBB is not a fully conceptualized, entirely coherent narrative, but compared to NCFOM, the thematic concerns are tapping into motherload material. Call it alienation, de-humanization, soulessness, whatever you call it, the protagonist has it in spades. Why he does so is not made crystal clear and for me this is a weakness in the characterization. At the same time, the character is highly complex, with some riveting internal contradictions, so the causation of his near-pathological misanthropy may be overlooked to the extent that we are too busy noticing that he cannot consistently adhere to his mandate to not love anyone. Especially when it comes to his affection for his adopted son, but also with respect to his momentary desire to believe the imposter is really his brother, the protagonist is sincerely attempting to experience family bonds. He fails because he hates himself most of all, of course, and why this is so is the bedrock mystery of the man as a concrete personality.
Abstractly though, as a representative of thematic concern, the character's anti-social existence is revealed by a humanist critique to be determined by the contest between two equally alienated expressions of human aspiration. Simply put, these are capital and God; in fact, the same bogus thing insofaras as real human labour-powers are projected onto these "others," the former a vulgar-materialist version and the latter a bogus-spiritualist version. The film literally calls these versions "Plainview" and "Sunday" respectively. The treatment of the latter is more ambiguous in TWBB as a result of the Eli character not having an independent arc in the story, his meaning is always in relation to our main man. On this score, it does sometime seems as if a dose of old-time religion is precisely what the rabid oilman needs, as if he could be fixed by a bit of balance, some Yin for his Yang. No way. Sunday is just as much of a hollow being as Plainview, and the fact that the vulgar materialist ultimately destroys the bogus spiritualist is a realist nod to secular power, the reality of wealth. Yet Plainview ends up in a kind of Welles/Kane/Hearst Xanadu mansion, a shell of a soul, just in case we somehow stupidly were working with the misconception that capital is groovy. But well before this, Plainview's pleasure-less drive to smash his competitors - almost literally in the face of the Standard Oil guy - is presented as base animal hostility that is not sublimated enough as economic competition to expand imperially to corporate proportions. In short, Standard Oil became Exxon, so what the fuck was it all for?
As to the style of TWBB, I feel it has in common with NCFOM a excessive reliance on evocative visuals in place of substantive dialogue. This is not to say that there is no meaningful language in TWBB, quite the contrary, the conversations are weighty. There is not enough of them, is my position, and this goes back to the lack of explanation with respect to the motivations of Plainview, what has historically determined him. (His self-professed preference for a taciturn approach to this is no narrative excuse). More troublesome about the cinematography in TWBB, it is often excellent, with tremendous attention to beauty, but damn if it didn't depart from solid "imagery" and go over into the eye-candy category for me. I trust you will get my personal short-hand when I say it reminded me of Terrence Malick. I don't mean this with intensity, just saying 'sall. Turning to the performances, not just the Oscar-winner but also the actor who played Eli, well, I suppose the latter had to over-act in order to keep up with the former and I suppose the former had to over-act in order to keep up with himself, which is to say the director hired him. It's seriously scene-chewing stuff. that can be quite irritating at times but overall it works in the picture. Indeed, I think the performances elevate the film, giving it a certain exaggerated gravitas that allows the thematic concerns to vibrate at a near-Biblical level. Hey, sometimes more is more.
Last comparison of the two films: If nothing else, to make a film about oil-induced-sin in 2008 - even a story with a period setting - is automatically more interesting to me than yet another picture about an old cowboy who has to hang up his spurs because the bad guys today are just too bad.
I like your comparison/contrast of these two films and agree with your assessment that TWBB is the more fully realized and complete film. Regardless of relative qualities of each film's literary sources, Anderson has in this film attempted not only to take on the mythology of the self-made man in America, but to dissect the parasitic nature of capitalism in a fashion that is both intelligent and entertaining. Finally, Anderson has finally begun to move out from the shadows of some of his most obvious influences, such as Altman and Scorcese, and asserted a cinematic vision that is both personal and ambitious. That said, TWBB is clearly drawn out of the same well of movie-making as that dipped into by giants like Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick; the film's opening twenty minutes are indebted, but visually and aurally, to Kubrick, while the remainder of the film is so very strongly inspired by Welles.
Day-Lewis delivers another patented piece of scenery chewing, the kind that used to win Nicholson Oscars, and which appears to be doing the same for him. As his nemesis, young Paul Dano manages to carve a niche for himself in the film in a way that poor old Leonardo diCaprio failed to in his turn as Day-Lewis's foe in Gangs of New York. As these two spar, representing the unholy alliance of capital and religion that has driven American development over the centuries, the film takes on the aspect of a fine dialectical tract, fleshing out the tensions and themes that have marked this aspect of American economic history.
The film is weakest in its final act, as Anderson rushes through the decades into to get to the final showdown between these two behemoths. Lost in the mix is Plainview's complex relationship with his son, which had marked so much of the middle act's emotional resonance. However, when push comes to shove in Plainview's bowling alley, a quiant version of Mr. Kane's Xanadu, the film reasserts its moral authority over the audience. A helluva film, the strongest in Anderson's career; here's hoping he keeps building upon this solid foundation.