The Class of 2007: Michael Clayton’s Restrained Brilliance

Sometimes things just line up. That’s clearly what happened in 2007, when moviegoers were improbably treated to a calendar year full of undeniable excellence on screen. Some of these great films were recognized almost immediately, others have gradually garnered appreciation over time; but as we stand ten years later, 2007 remains one of the standout years for movies over the last few decades. Throughout 2017 I’ll be periodically going back to take stock of what made these movies so impressive and how they hold up today. 

Oscar nominations: 7 (1 win)

Domestic box office: $49,033,882 (55th highest-grossing movie of 2007)

What the critics said: “It’s not about the destination but the journey, and when the stakes become so high that lives and corporations are on the table, it’s spellbinding to watch the Clooney and Swinton characters eye to eye, raising each other, both convinced that the other is bluffing.” – Roger Ebert

Unlike No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood, two masterpieces from 2007, Michael Clayton did not challenge or redefine cinema as we know it. However, it did make many adult moviegoers relieved that films like this could still get made. By that I mean grown-up, restrained genre thrillers. Michael Clayton is made with such confidence and directness that it is out of place among today’s crime/legal/political thrillers that go for cheap adrenaline rushes and sloppily-asserted “messages”. You might have to go back to 1999’s The Insider to find a comparable film with as much intelligence and self-assurance.

The script here, written by director Tony Gilroy, is tightly-constructed, non-linear, and avoids obvious cliches. Gilroy had written all three Bourne movies by this time (he would write-direct a fourth in 2012), so clearly he had the chops to put together a compelling action flick. This was his first directorial gig though, so it’s not like this was going to be a slam dunk. Denzel apparently turned down George Clooney’s role because of his hesitance at working with a first-time director. What Gilroy brings besides his excellent writing is some decent visuals filmed in a mostly classical style. Nothing too flashy with the camerawork like the Bourne flicks, which mostly works for this type of film. You can tell Gilroy doesn’t necessarily have the eye for a telling shot like some of the greats working today, but his writing more than makes up for it.

He does have help, though. Clooney is excellent, cool and suave like Danny Ocean, but with an undercurrent of frustration and paranoia. As stellar a career as he’s had, you could make the argument this is his best work (I don’t know if I’d necessarily make that argument, but you could). Playing the titular character, his “fixer” works for a high-powered law firm in New York. He’s brought in to clean up the mess made by Tom Wilkinson’s Arthur Edens, a defense lawyer whose bipolar condition causes him to act irrational and paranoid while working on a case for a shady chemical company. Wilkinson, all wild-eyed and unstable, usually isn’t given roles where he can go this gonzo. He relishes it, as does Tilda Swinton, who plays a legal representative of the aforementioned shady company. She won the Supporting Actress Oscar for her work here in an understated, far from showy performance.

There are a handful of really gripping scenes where the actors just continually raise the bar for each other. Wilkinson and Clooney in the alley and then Clooney and Swinton at the close of the film come to mind. Acting and dialogue meshing wonderfully, with themes of paranoia and corporate corruption revealing an outraged worldview that doesn’t resort to heavy-handedness. It’s righteous anger that doesn’t need to shout.

Of course, a year or so after Michael Clayton‘s release, we had the subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S., with corporate negligence and greed contributing to the Great Recession. In the end, Clayton nails the chemical company for manufacturing a weed killer it knew to be carcinogenic. If this movie had come out a couple years later than it did something tells me it might have made more money at the box office.

Critics gushed over it, nonetheless. In a stacked year, it made numerous end-of-year top ten lists. They compared it to classic 1970s and 80s legal thrillers, where the style never casts a shadow over the substance, like All the President’s Men and The Verdict. Those are apt comparisons, because the restraint in visual style and pacing is what sets Michael Clayton apart. In the decade since, Tony Gilroy has only enhanced his reputation as an intelligent Hollywood screenwriter, although his two directorial efforts since (Duplicity and The Bourne Legacy) have fallen short of Michael Clayton‘s heights. Gilroy has a remarkable ear for killer dialogue, but not necessarily overt visual panache, which, like I said, doesn’t hurt this film at all.

If there was a sigh of relief that smart, medium-budget thrillers like this could still get made back in 2007, it would be an even heavier exhale today, as comic book movies and sequels crowd out the Michael Claytons from even getting greenlit. More and more, understated prestige dramas can be found on TV (The Americans, The Night Manager) instead of at the movie theater. It’s certainly not easy to create something as compelling as Michael Clayton, but the lack of similar films in recent years is disheartening.

Increasingly, if your movie isn’t an already recognizable franchise or can’t immediately generate discussion/controversy, it might never see the light of day. Michael Clayton was a grower for me. I enjoyed the first watch, but only on the second did its excellence become obvious to me. Due to its patient, slow burn nature, it’s simply working on a higher level from the vast majority of political and legal thrillers. Pour one out with me for all the Michael Claytons that never made it to the screen.

More on The Class of 2007:

Zodiac
Gone Baby Gone

Advertisements

How Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper Portray Their Faith

Kendrick Lamar's Humble video

With DAMN., Kendrick Lamar has produced yet another dense and brilliant album. The 29-year-old from Compton is firmly in his prime and still on top of the rap world. Curiously, part of what captivates Kendrick’s fans is the heavy spiritual element in his music since at least his debut studio album Section.80. The current King of Hip-Hop has always incorporated his faith in approachable and compelling ways, and that certainly doesn’t change on DAMN.

Similarly, hip-hop’s fastest rising star, Chance the Rapper, also speaks frequently about God on his 2016 album Coloring Book, albeit in quite a different way. The production and lyrical style of Chance’s music will not often be confused with Kendrick’s, but there can be no doubting that both love to explore the spiritual side of life.

There’s more than one way to portray faith in your art. In the manner they evoke religious themes and their own personal faith, two of the most popular and important rappers in the game are showing us two sides of the same coin.

“I am a sinner who’s probably gonna sin again…”

The pictures Kendrick and Chance paint with their words tend to contrast in fascinating ways. Kendrick repeatedly wrestles with sin and brokenness — in himself, his community, and the entire world. His rhymes can often be tortured, conflicted, and angst-ridden; it’s part of what makes his music so relatable and rewarding.

Like most, I was first introduced to Kendrick when Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City came out in 2012. On “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” I was immediately struck with the line, “I am a sinner who’s probably gonna sin again…” Within the context of the song, it didn’t seem like a flippant line about reveling in sin. It seemed like a straightforward and vulnerable admission of human weakness. It made me sit up and pay attention to what he was actually saying on the album.

Growing up in Compton, there was no shortage of vices available to derail Kendrick before he became one of the all-time great MCs. The autobiographical Good Kid reports on Kendrick’s hellish experience in the streets. He admits on “The Art of Peer Pressure” that he’s “Never been violent / Until I’m with the homies.” He struggles against the temptation to lose himself in alcohol on “Swimming Pools (Drank).” He calls himself “Compton’s Human Sacrifice” on the menacing track “m.A.A.d. city.” Coming from his background, Kendrick continually makes it clear in his lyrics that he never should’ve made it out — much less as a positive role model.

This is why it’s fascinating to see him so openly and honestly thrash against his sinful nature as he strives to be the messiah that the culture makes him out to be. It’s difficult to imagine that kind of pressure, particularly when your past haunts you. On “The Blacker the Berry” from his jazz-funk magnum opus To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick repeatedly dubs himself “the biggest hypocrite of 2015.” This feeling, of being a pretender or a fraud, is something that many can identify with, whether you’re religious or not.

“Why God, why God, do I gotta suffer?”

A Kendrick record can very often be a raw, intimate portrait of his anguished soul, but he can also expand his scope to survey the broken world around him. Increasingly, he has taken aim at big-picture issues like racism, urban violence, and political disarray. While he’s still navigating his persistent materialistic desires, the suffering he witnesses on a mass scale leaves Kendrick disheartened and helpless. On To Pimp a Butterfly he laments police brutality (“Alright”) and greedy obsession with money (“Institutionalized”). On DAMN., he sees our screwed-up world in a decidedly Old Testament light (Deuteronomy is quoted on “FEAR.”). Kendrick and his people are cursed (or damned) for their disobedience and pride by a righteous, unforgiving God.

As he witnesses the world’s atrocities, it weighs heavy on Kendrick’s soul. Especially on DAMN., he’s particularly forthright about his doubts. The Ringer’s Micah Peters put it well in his recent piece on Kendrick and faith:

Kendrick’s faith functions astride the spiritual and the secular, leaving ample room for doubt; I’ve always thought of it as plainspoken. Or pragmatic. It’s his way of parsing the knottier, more trying questions you hope to never need ask or answer: What happens when life is too much? When you’re too angry or saddened to believe that prayer will be enough to cover it?

The contemplative track “FEAR.” finds Kendrick questioning God a la Jesus on the cross, pleading “Why God, why God, do I gotta suffer?” On multiple DAMN. songs, Kendrick asks for us to “pray for me.” It’s unusual and refreshing for a Christian artist to be so naked about their doubts.

“The type of worship make Jesus come back a day early”

Chance the Rapper's Grammy performance

This dark realism makes for a stark contrast with Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book. Chance’s faith on his album (technically, it’s a mixtape) is one of joyous worship and exuberance. From the very first notes on the very first track, “All We Got,” victorious trumpets announce God’s glory, as Chance’s deft wordplay and surprisingly excellent singing lead us in praise. Coloring Book might be enough to make the most hardened anti-church among us wander back into a pew. As David Dark points out for MTV News, “We’re never not worshiping in Chance’s world.”

Part one of “Blessings” (the last track is also called “Blessings”) has Chance’s dominant theme wrapped up in one chorus:

I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone
I’m gon’ praise Him, praise Him ’til I’m gone
When the praises go up, the blessings come down
When the praises go up, the blessings come down
It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap
It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap

As he’s writing this song, Chance has a newborn baby girl (he’s lovingly looking down at her on the album’s cover) and has earned career success through a feature on his idol Kanye West’s new album, and more. He has plenty of reasons to praise God and thank Him for his blessings.

However, you still see temptation and sin creep into the corners of Chance’s wonderful world. Glimpses of his personal demons come into a view on “Finish Line/Drown” when he mentions his previous addiction to Xanax: “I’ve been lying to my body can’t rely on myself oh no / Last year got addicted to xans / Started forgetting my name and started missing my chance.” Similarly, he’s open about the sorrow he feels over the incessant violence in his hometown of Chicago on “Angels”: “It’s too many young angels on the southside / Got us scared to let our grandmommas outside.

But this is Chance’s stage, so the devil simply can’t win. “All We Got” sees Chance giving “Satan a swirlie” (a charmingly innocent threat). Later on that track, he claims, “I do not talk to the serpent / That’s that holistic discernment.” He continually relies on God to keep evil at bay. Does this come off as tone-deaf to all of the suffering we see, including the systemic racial injustices of our world? I think Chance would tell you his music is meant to uplift and inspire, all while staying grounded in the reality of sin. Kendrick’s music, on the other hand, does the reverse: It openly presents his struggles, all while providing a glimmer of light for us to find.

Their contrasting lyrical content naturally leads to contrasting sounds. Kendrick tends to be darker and meditative, utilizing knotty jazz instrumentation on To Pimp a Butterfly and simpler, bass-heavy beats on DAMN. Chance goes for a true gospel vibe on Coloring Book and other standout tracks, like “Sunday Candy.” Trumpets and choirs signal the worship that’s about to go down. The oversimplified difference between the two is a packed, high-energy gospel church on Sunday morning vs. a solitary figure alone with his tortured thoughts in a dark bedroom.

“The book don’t end with Malachi”

Kendrick Lamar's faith

Despite the often vast difference in lyrics and sound, where they converge is their belief that they stand in need of God’s grace. Both of them hail from rough backgrounds in violent neighborhoods, Compton and Chicago. And coincidentally enough, both of them had a spiritual awakening involving a grandmother’s prayer.

For Kendrick, it can be heard on Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City. The record opens with two boys praying: “Lord God, I come to you a sinner…” Ten tracks later we learn this prayer is being led by the grandma of Kendrick’s friend, who came upon them after their friend was murdered. This moment, in a Food 4 Less parking lot, is when Kendrick considers himself saved, when he accepted God’s grace and became motivated to live for Him.

Chance tells a similar story in a recent GQ interview. Around the time he released Acid Rap, his impressive second mixtape that put him on the hip-hop map, he was doing a copious amount of drugs. Chance describes himself as “gone all the time.” His grandmother noticed this and prayed over him, but not with a positive tone like she usually did. Chance recalls her prayer: “Lord, I pray that all things that are not like You, You take away from Chance. Make sure that he fails at everything that is not like You.” Afterwards, he said that even though it “damn near sounded like a curse,” this blessing gave him perspective. It was a kind of comforting message that God had promising plans for him and that where he succeeded, God would be the centerpiece. He got to work on Coloring Book soon after.

While Kendrick and Chance may have their own distinct point of view, both arrive at nuance in their work. Neither work with a narrow lens. Chance may be the more optimistic of the two, but he sometimes allows dark clouds to gather over his music as well. He’s melancholy on songs like “Summer Friends” and “Angels” as he bemoans Chicago’s murder rate, which includes some of his childhood friends. Conversely, Kendrick is capable of moments of heart-bursting hope. The transition from “u” to “Alright” on To Pimp a Butterfly is a perfect example. He goes from weeping in self-pity on the former to chanting “If God got us, then we gon’ be alright” on the latter. Personal torment thrillingly gives way to pragmatic assurance.

Between these two artists, which has a better and more true depiction of faith? The answer is, of course, both. There is real, profound power in both Kendrick’s vulnerable doubts and Chance’s irresistible joy. We need both of their styles in popular music. For a world that is deeply in need of redemption, Kendrick and Chance just provide it in different ways.