Deliberate, demanding and character-driven, Michael Clayton flies in the face of what sells at the multiplex. I couldn’t have liked it more. In a throwback to the 1970s, when master directors Sidney Lumet (Network, Dog Day Afternoon) and Alan Pakula (Klute, The Parallax View) thought moral inquiry was part of the job, this gripping thriller simmers with tasty provocation. Kudos to screenwriter Tony Gilroy (all three Bourne films), who makes a smashing directing debut that never lets up on the tension or its redemptive purpose. It won’t be lost on Oscar that the film is a triumph for George Clooney, who is at the top of his dramatic form in the title role.
Michael is a fixer at a New York law firm, the janitor in expensive suits who covers up the dirty deeds of asshole clients. Forget his gambling debts, his faults as a divorced father, his troubled cop family: Michael is in spiritual hell, rotting from the inside. The fact crystallizes when the firm’s boss (the great Sydney Pollack, a skilled director who can act the pants off any role — did you see him in the last season of The Sopranos?) hands him his toughest assignment: Put a lid on Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson, a consummate actor in his prime), a top litigator who’s been deflecting a huge class-action suit. Arthur, off his meds and stripping at depositions, is suddenly switching sides. Like Peter Finch in Network, Arthur is as mad as hell. Like Paul Newman in The Verdict, Michael is forced to examine himself for the presence of a conscience. Clooney, dropping the charm to expose raw nerves, inhabits this burnt-out case with haunting brilliance. It’s a bone-deep performance that raises the bar in scenes with Wilkinson, Pollack and Tilda Swinton, as a lawyer who’d literally kill to win. Here’s a movie that means to shake you, and does.