Director: Tony Gilroy
Cast: George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack
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Who is Michael Clayton? Part lawyer, part cop, Clayton (Clooney) is a “fixer” for a large law firm; the janitor who cleans up their mess before anyone catches wind of it. If you want a taxi, use the yellow pages. If you run over a kid and need a get-out, Michael’s your man. A dirty but necessary job, the world Michael inhabits is full of shadowy subtleties. However, when his hero, top lawyer Arthur (Wilkinson), goes AWOL whilst defending bio-chemical corporation U North against a law suit, things become even murkier.
A film filtered through shades of grey, an ambiguous air permeates the proceedings. From Clayton’s struggle with morality to U North’s increasingly desperate exec Karen (Swinton), the actions of everyone involved are dubious. The only character absolved from such aspersions is Arthur; a manic depressive, played with sheer class by Wilkinson, he frees himself from his corporate shackles by stripping down to his underpants. Good for him.
As U North wipe out the traces that prove their product is dangerous, the pressure falls to Michael to evince the truth. His fight eventually leads to the confrontation we expect: Clayton versus Karen. Though deciding the fate of thousands, these face-offs are only ever a war of words. The opening car bomb aside, this is a low-key thriller which depends upon their performances for tension. With a talented cast all fighting for survival, Michael Clayton does not disappoint.
The weakness of the film, though, lies in its structure. Beginning with an admittedly intriguing prologue, the flashback construction is perhaps superfluous. Within this framework, the film’s flow is unbalanced by a subplot involving Michael’s brother. The result is a slightly confusing edge to an already blurry film. In a drama of delicate distinctions, introducing more uncertainty is a niggling error. Penned and directed by the writer of The Bourne Ultimatum, this is something of a surprise. Nonetheless, the payoff for one man’s grapple with a shadowy organisation is a satisfying thing to witness. All it needs is a snappier title.
With the feel of a 90s Grisham adaptation, Gilroy’s directorial debut is a pleasing throwback to an age before needlessly explosive twaddle. Who is Michael Clayton? It takes some time to find out, but you’ll be glad you did.