“Michael Clayton,” the assured directorial debut of Tony Gilroy, the writer of the “Bourne” trilogy, opens with the voice over narration of Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a senior partner at a high power law firm. Wilkinson freely admits he is possibly crazy as he eloquently rants about how he feels he is covered in the excrement of the firm. The monologue, delivered quite brilliantly by Wilkinson, is a helluva hook that the movie lives up to.
In subsequent scenes, the film introduces us to the title character (George Clooney), the firm’s fixer, the man who is sent into clean up legal messes, and in some cases bend and manipulate the truth. Gilroy, who also scripted the film, drops the audience in the middle of events set into motion years before. After Clooney survives a car bombing the film flashes back to four days earlier. It will be nearly two hours before the context of these opening events become clear.
Some will call “Michael Clayton” a thriller – after all it is marketed as such – but those expecting the fast paced action of the “Bourne” movies will be let down. Gilroy is making a different sort of thriller. There are no chases. There are no gun battles. The thrills are smaller ones, but no less enticing. There are verbal battles and power plays in place of bullets and cars.
The plot is intricate and complex, but not confusing. Wilkinson’s Arthur is chemically imbalanced and when he goes off his medications he begins to see clearly that the case he has spent the last six years on is all wrong. His erratic behavior makes the firm uncomfortable especially since they are in the process of being taken over by a British law firm headed by Tilda Swinton (“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”). Clooney is suppose to keep Wilkinson in check, but soon also sees the error of his ways.
The above description makes the film seem far more generic than it truly is, but to reveal any further details would ruin the film’s rich plot and characters. The film builds slowly, revealing the complexities of its story at a leisurely pace, it may lag in places but the film earns the audience’s patience and time. The ending delivers in a big way and any lulls are quickly forgiven.
As a writer, Gilroy has come a long way from his first screenplay, the figuring skating comedy/drama “The Cutting Edge.” Here his characters go deeper than mere archetypes. Swinton is the villain of the piece and on the surface she is as cold as the Snow Queen in “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” but Gilroy’s script and Swinton’s nuanced performance show a woman who is perhaps out of her depth as the head of a major international law firm. In a brilliant sequence we see her practice answers for an interview intercut with the actual interview. It shrewdly reveals a woman with a strong front, but a vulnerable underbelly.
Wilkinson gives one of his best performances as a man who he is crazy, but at the same time completely rational with his gifted legal mind perfectly intact and functioning. The line between crazy and sane is a tricky one to walk as an actor, but Wilkinson walks it gracefully.
As for Clooney, he continues to prove himself to be one of the best actors of his generation. Clooney’s Michael Clayton is worn down by life. He is a failed entrepreneur with debt hanging over his head and a guilty conscience. His decision to do the right thing isn’t shown with a preachy speech or flashy overacting. Clooney shows Michael Clayton’s moral shift through quiet pauses and subtle facial expressions.
Clooney is an actor who successfully balances commercial work like the “Ocean” movies with thought provoking film such as “Syriana” and “Good Night and Good Luck.” His star power brings attention to projects that may otherwise fade away. The Clooneys of the world show Hollywood that film can both be intelligent and arty and still be profitable. Clooney and others like him may be able to fix Hollywood yet.