Lately superstar George Clooney has been conjuring up images from the age of Hollywood past. “Ocean’s Eleven” was an updated Rat Pack extravaganza, “Good Night, And Good Luck.” a throwback to the fifties and “The Good German” an homage to noir. His newest film, “Michael Clayton,” is a deliberate, character-driven thriller, the type of which has rarely been seen since the ‘70s.
Michael Clayton (Clooney) is the “janitor” for a powerful New York law firm — charged with the task of cleaning up their dirty messes. The latest fiasco involves a class action suit that’s been dragging on for six years, with the massive settlement finally heading towards closure. However, the lead lawyer on the case, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), appears to have gone mad, having stripped down during a deposition while rambling incessantly. Clayton believes this to be an adverse reaction from not taking his meds until strange things begin to happen, signaling his colleague may have been onto something after all.
This is one of the most intelligently written films of the year — intricately complex where nothing is cut and dry. Tony Gilroy, who helped write the “Bourne” films, makes his directorial debut and takes full advantage of working from his own strong screenplay. He constructed a narrative that reveals itself gradually, allowing the complicated characters and interwoven plot to unwind at a natural pace. It takes awhile to let it soak in but because it relies on the strong cast and their personal dilemmas over cheap thrills or twists, the story never falls apart. Gilroy then brings everything together for a gripping and satisfying conclusion, in part by steering away from a neat or contrived resolution.
With the strong source material already in place, Clooney responds with the strongest outing of his career. Gone is his famed aura of suave and charm, replaced by a nuanced determination to simply stay afloat. Having been worn down by his grueling profession and the mounting pressure to stay out of debt, Clooney is left scrambling to survive amongst his cutthroat surroundings. As it progresses, this slowly begins to wake him up, forcing him to reevaluate what his ethical conscience has become. Clooney never loses sight of this inner struggle and, in the face of being pulled apart by business, money and family problems, keeps us invested and dialed in.
Clooney is not the only one with a brilliant performance — the supporting cast all nail their roles too. Wilkinson is haunting as a man on the brink of sanity, yet hinting at a morsel of truth below the surface. Tilda Swinton deserves accolades as Karen Crowder, the firm’s chief counsel, who is given the ultimatum of pushing the settlement through at any cost. Even though she serves as a villain in the piece, it is never purely black and white, and her behavior indicates she is battling with the same tough issues as Clayton. Sydney Pollack, perfectly cast as Clayton’s boss, provides the tough-as-nails personality one would expect from a man in his position, and is at his best alongside Clooney.
With one of the smartest scripts of the year and an equally impressive cast, “Michael Clayton” is sure to attract attention come awards season. Clooney is the one most likely to reap the benefits and could score his second acting nomination after winning two years ago for “Syriana.” However, Gilroy is not to be forgotten in the mix, having turned in the job of a seasoned veteran, and it’s largely because of him the film ranks among the year’s best.