George Clooney adds subtlety to the title character in "Michael Clayton."
Clooney, Wilkinson and Swinton confer on a legal thriller that's one of the year's best films
Doing the right thing. Seems simple, but it's not so easy. And for who? Yourself? Society? What if you're a lawyer and your job consists of cleaning up after others?
"I was told you're a miracle worker," a distraught -- and guilty -- client shouts at corporate attorney Michael Clayton.
"I'm not," Clayton responds. "I'm a janitor." He's so matter-of-fact he seems to be spelling it out on a blackboard. And then he tells the client what he doesn't want to hear, but it's what will work for him.
Clayton's "niche," as his boss puts it, is as a shadowy fixer within a legal empire, the go-to guy who cleans up the little legal messes and moral shortcuts the rich clients create for themselves. The effort of making it look effortless is beginning to show -- Clayton has a secret debt of $75,000 he must pay by next week or bad things will happen, he's gambling but trying to quit, his job requires him to concentrate on it every second, even when he's supposedly spending quality time with his son, whom he only sees on weekends.
And then another attorney within the firm goes nuts in a simple deposition, ripping off his clothes and shouting truths with glowing zeal. He's trying to do the right thing. This guy is Clayton's only friend in the firm, and he's dispatched to shut him up. It isn't so much the public nakedness as it is the chance secrets will get out. It seems the firm is representing a giant agribusiness that accidentally poisons farmers.
The in-house attorney for the agribusiness also decides to do the right thing for her client, calling in some muscle to tamp down any fires. She's nearly a match for Clayton -- sleek, outwardly possessed, powerful, roiling on the inside. It's all about control for these folks.
The film "Michael Clayton" is a fulsome exploration of the legal thriller genre, one that didn't exist a couple of decades ago, but now we know the dramatic landscape as surely as an old-fashioned Western -- cool, expensive style; deeply repressed secrets; a noir sensibility; powerful people caught in the headlights of guilt.
This is the writing-directing debut of Tony Gilroy, previously known for the three "Bourne" films, and his tone is pitch-perfect here, particularly in the details. Clayton owes only $75,000? Why can't a guy in his position raise that? Why is his family at arm's length? Why, as he drives out into the night to clean up a client's mess, why does his dashboard GPS map sputter? Where is his moral compass?
There is fabulously conceived adult dialogue here, crackling and unfettered. There is no idle chatter. Gilroy is a master of the blindsided moment and creeping dread in mundane details, and James Newton Howard's score gooses it along.
But the movie really belongs to the trio of actors at its core, George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton, all operating on full thrusters in tautly realized, mature performances. "Michael Clayton" is one of the best films of the year, the perfect anodyne for those demanding a grown-up movie.