George Clooney as Michael Clayton
Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens
Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder
Sydney Pollack as Marty Bach
Sean Cullen as Gene Clayton
Michael O’Keefe as Barry Grissom
Ken Howard as Don Jefferies
Denis O’Hare as Mr. Greer
Robert Prescott as Mr. Verne
Austin Williams as Henry Clayton
Merritt Wever as Anna
David Lansbury as Timmy Clayton
Bill Raymond as Gabe Zabel
David Zayas as Detective Dalberto
Skipp Sudduth as Jerry Dante
Directed by Tony Gilroy
(Note: This review has been reformatted and slightly rewritten from its earlier appearance on the CS Blog.)
A slow and deliberate pace builds to an amazing climax in Tony Gilroy’s riveting, intricate look at corporate corruption on its many levels.
Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is the “fixer” at a corporate law firm that’s been handling a 3 billion class action suit for six years, but just as they’re about to arrive at a settlement, the firm’s representative on the case, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), discovers a cover-up being hidden by their client’s head counsel (Tilda Swinton). Clayton thinks his colleague has just gone off his meds until something happens to Arthur that seems to point to a greater conspiracy.
Tony Gilroy cut his teeth writing political thrillers for Taylor Hackford and Paul Greengrass, the last two “Bourne” movies for the latter, but when he decided to direct one of his scripts, he took on his most challenging material with a film set in the backrooms of the corporate law firms that few people ever get to see.
Although “Michael Clayton” is driven by Gilroy’s brilliant writing, it’s clearly Clooney’s movie as the title character whose specialized profession is similar to that of Harvey Keitel’s Mr. Wolf in “Pulp Fiction,” cleaning up the messes that can cost the New York law firm that employs him billions of dollars or merely make their clients look bad. We meet Clayton as he’s embroiled in an illegal Chinatown poker tournament before he’s to a job, leading to an unexpected event that seems to come from out of left field. We then go back four days and we watch the events that lead up to that moment.
Having carved a niche with his specialized abilities, Clayton has become the best at what he does, and while in theory, he could have anything he wants in life, he’s burnt-out and frustrated with what this job sometimes entails. On top of that, Clayton is plagued by personal problems having taken on his drug-addicted brother’s financial debt upon himself, forcing him to close and sell off the restaurant they own to try to get out from under it. Clayton’s job doesn’t leave him much time for a social life, but his ex-wife has already moved on with her life, and Clayton has to work hard to try to connect with his young son. It’s always clear that he still feels a huge responsibility towards his family despite having bigger problems at work.
A chemical company represented by his firm has been embroiled in a multi-billion class action lawsuit involving fertilizer that has caused health problems to hundreds of farmers and their families. Tom Wilkinson plays Arthur Edens, the firm’s top litigator, has been dealing with this case for six years, and the company’s chief counsel Karen Crowder, played by Tilda Swinton, is in charge of cleaning up the mess when a memo is leaked that would indict her company for knowing that their product might cause these problems.
Gilroy’s film opens with a long rambling monologue by Wilkinson, which doesn’t make much sense until we hear it repeated later, this time as Michael Clayton has been brought in to quell the situation when Eden has taken off all his clothes in the middle of depositions and seems to be sabotaging the case, having clearly gone insane. This is another terrific performance by Wilkinson even if there are aspects of his character that aren’t particularly credible and are somewhat off-putting like his relationship with Clayton’s son and a creepy obsession with a young female plaintiff. We’re never really sure what that means or if there’s something darker and more disturbing than just a man having a nervous breakdown. The only other key player in the story is Sydney Pollack, perfectly cast as Marty Bach, Clayton’s boss and the partner in the firm who realizes that Clayton’s having trouble keeping it together as he gets more and more caught up in the information that Eden has uncovered.
For the most part, this deliberately slow film takes some time to adjust and get comfortable with its pace, especially because it’s not immediately clear who everyone is and what is going on. Even after a second viewing, it takes some concentration to keep up with the relationships and how things will affect Clayton later, but this is how Gilroy keeps the viewer off-balance and it’s also what makes it so effective, as many people seeing this may be shocked to see what corporations will do in order to cover their butt. In this case, it’s the cause and effect of Tilda Swinton’s decisions that will leave many people wondering if big corporations can be trusted at all.
Even though it’s Gilroy’s tight writing and the strong performances that most will remember, it’s a great looking debut with a strong look and tone. Hundreds of films are made in New York every year, but Gilroy gives us a different perspective using the city as a character in a way that owes more to “Wall Street” than anything Woody Allen has ever directed.
Eventually, we’re back at the moment where the movie cuts back to the past, and we see the earlier scene of Clayton leaving the poker game from a different perspective. By this time, everyone should be fully behind Clayton as a character, a true testament to the way Clooney is able to sell this character and the story with his outstanding performance which even surpasses the one he gave in “Syriana.” Whether or not you’re a fan of George Clooney, you can’t deny that this might be his strongest role and most convincing performance to date, and no one should be surprised if he gets to don the tux for Oscar night once again.
The Bottom Line:
Overall, this is a brilliant directorial debut by Gilroy, a complex yet subdued thriller that takes its time to grab you but keeps you riveted to the screen until the very end once it does. Once it gets going “Michael Clayton” shines brightly as a beacon of how the normally trite and formulaic Hollywood thriller can be intelligent and exciting.
Michael Clayton opens in New York, L.A. and Toronto on October 5 then opens wide on October 12.