"Four stars (R)
The first few scenes of Michael Clayton are confusing as hell, but that’s all right, because this is one of those stories where considerable satisfaction is derived from watching the pieces fall into place. Which means I probably shouldn’t tell you anything about the movie, so you can experience it the same way I did. Of course, that would leave a lot of white space on the page (too much even for our current visually inviting now-a-go-go design format) and I wouldn’t get paid, so the heck with that. What I’ll do instead is issue a cautionary statement, then gingerly proceed forward.
Here’s the cautionary statement: If you enjoy big, somber, ’70s-style thrillers about corruption and redemption, expertly assembled and artfully presented, with a powerhouse cast led by a full-fledged movie star at his best, go see Michael Clayton without reading further, because the following paragraphs, though spoiler free, reveal some basic information about a few of the characters and situations that you may not wish to know in advance.
With that out of the way, I can tell you that Michael Clayton, written and directed by Tony Gilroy (The Bourne screenplays), follows the eponymous Mr. Clayton, a “fixer” for an imposing New York corporate law firm that calls him in to take care of difficult situations. The affably downbeat attorney, an expert at simultaneously coming off as soothing and authoritarian, refers to himself as a “janitor” and George Clooney somehow manages to make the character ring true without dampening his considerable movie star aura.
The film opens with a crisis, then hops back in time to another crisis. The one you need to know about concerns Clayton’s colleague and friend, Arthur Edens, who is fighting a massive Erin Brockovich-ish class-action lawsuit against the agrochemical corporation U/North. The great British actor Tom Wilkinson expertly plays Arthur, who is cracking up and off his meds. One moment he is ranting wildly, like Peter Finch’s Howard Beale in Network or James Woods pretty much anytime. The next moment he is taking off his clothes and running naked from a deposition.
Others concerned about Arthur’s meltdown include law firm lead partner Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack) and U/North chief counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). Pollack and Swinton are great, which should come as no surprise. Pollack has played a number of morally questionable power figures, but he uses unusual body language (watch how he moves his head) and an emphasis on bass tones to make this character different than the others. As for Swinton, her characters always seem unique. Loved watching her rehearsal for an important appearance, smoothing her words along with her wardrobe.
Tony Gilroy’s script and direction avoid flashiness. So does James Newton Howard’s subtle score. Good for them. It’s risky to make a thriller that burns so low, but I appreciated the change of pace. I also appreciated the quiet closing image of Michael Clayton, which kept most of the audience in their seats for a few extra seconds as they tried to decide if the film was really over. It was, and so is this.