Filled with wonderfully conflicted characters, Michael Clayton is a masterful legal thriller that never misses a beat. A true diamond in the rough.
Think The Insider meets Erin Brockovich. George Clooney plays the title character, a lawyer who, instead of practicing law, has become an in-house "fixer" at one of the largest corporate law firms in New York. Any little nasty detail they want swept under the carpet, Clayton is their man--from hit-and-runs and damaging stories in the press to shoplifting wives and crooked politicians. He'd like to quit, but unfortunately he's inextricably tied to the firm, especially to partner Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack). But when the firm's top litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has an apparent breakdown and exposes the underbelly of a huge class-action suit against U-North--an agrochemical company the firm is supposed to be representing--Clayton gets his toughest assignment to date. He is told to get Arthur under control before he sabotages the case any further, but in tackling this unprecedented disaster, Clayton realizes Arthur isn't all that crazy. Suddenly, Clayton comes face to face with the reality of who he has become.
This is where Michael Clayton shines. All the performances are spot-on, starting with Clooney as the title protagonist. It isn't that Clooney has to really stretch in Clayton, as he did in his Oscar-winning Syriana performance, but that he plays damaged goods better than most. His Clayton is a study in conflicted behavior--a gambleholic, burnt-out on having to cleaning up his firm's messes, divorced and trying to be a good dad to his precocious son. The best part? He isn't necessarily "fixed" at the end of the movie. Then we have the two spectrums of good vs. evil: Wilkinson turns in another amazing performance as the film's conscience. The veteran actor gets all the best Oscar-worthy speeches, especially the one he gives off-camera explaining the moment he found "clarity." And on the opposite end, there's Tilda Swinton (The Chronicles of Narnia), playing Karen Crowder, one of U-North's mucky mucks. Her insecurities and rash decisions fuel Michael Clayton's action. In the end, however, no one comes off smelling sweet.
Tony Gilroy certainly knows a thing or two about writing smart, character-driven pieces, having penned all three of the Bourne screenplays as well as films like Dolores Claiborne. Now, with Michael Clayton, he has finally decided to take the helm for the first time, backed by the full support of executive producer George Clooneyand he couldn't have picked a better choice for his debut film. Michael Clayton isn't one of those legal thrillers in which you are looking for a twist to keep you guessing. There isn't anything visually startling about it, either--no shaky camera technique like Gilroy's Bourne colleague Paul Greengrass. What Gilroy concentrates on instead is the power of his actors' performances. For example, the director cuts between a nervous Karen getting ready in her hotel room before a giving a presentation and her actual poised speech, or intimately shows Clayton having a poignant conversation with his son in his car. Everything fits seamlessly within the context of the action. It's an absolute tour-de-forceand surefire Oscar contender.
Hollywood.com rated this film 4 stars.