“I’m not arguing with you. I’m telling you how it is.” This is how Michael Clayton (Clooney) responds to a threat from a fellow attorney at the high-powered Manhattan law firm where he is the in-house “fixer,” the man who makes nasty problems go away. It’s also the way that writer-director Gilroy approaches the film of the same name, which finds Clayton trying to clean up the mess caused by his friend and mentor, Arthur Edens (Wilkinson), after Edens suffers a nervous breakdown in the middle of a deposition for a multibillion-dollar lawsuit.
Gilroy doesn’t break a sweat; he just tells you how it is, from the understated explosion of Clayton’s car in the early moments of the film to the incremental build of small betrayals and revelations over the course of a four-day flashback that put the character in place for such a thing to happen to him. Gilroy lays out a chilling murder scene with the same matter-of-factness with which Clayton directs his underlings after Edens’ breakdown threatens to derail the firm’s defense of an agrochemical company against a class-action suit.
The movie proceeds so smoothly and efficiently that at times it seems almost mechanical, and the sequences that fill in Clayton’s back story (divorced with a young son, recovering gambling addict, in debt over a failed restaurant venture) feel a bit incomplete. But Clooney fills in the emotional blanks with his alternately steely and haggard performance, making Clayton more than just a piece in a puzzle. The other principal actors, including Wilkinson as Edens, Swinton as the shark-like lawyer for the clearly evil corporation and Pollack as the head of Clayton’s law firm, do similarly understated but effective work, making what is essentially a standard legal thriller into something with more substance and weight.
Although Gilroy’s style recalls paranoid ’70s conspiracy thrillers, his plot—especially with its overly neat ending—is more along the lines of a John Grisham adaptation. But the combination works, keeping you involved and in suspense until the last moment, when Gilroy holds on a close-up of Clooney, looking just as exhausted and satisfied as the audience.
George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack
Directed by Tony Gilroy