Brainy hunk George Clooney has quite a reputation for tackling characters who play both sides of the street, more often than not shaded heavily in gray when it comes to black and white choices between right and wrong. In other words, even when he’s bad, George can be quite good, and his rebel outing, Michael Clayton, currently in re-release, is no exception.
The legal eagle thriller penned by Bourne Identity and Devil’s Advocate slick screen scribe mastermind Tony Gilroy, is his first directing venture. Gilroy conceives of Clooney’s Michael Clayton as a kind of Erin Brokovich with whiskers and a shady past, a rehabilitated white collar, ecologically minded superhero corporate greed buster. But it takes quite some time for the normally complacent and go with the flow Clayton, as well as the movie, to arrive there.
Clayton in the film is a longtime bottom feeder damage control grunt attorney known as a fixer, at an elite New York City law firm. His increasingly unfulfilling job assignment as a former cop with a nose for the dark side of humanity, is to shove all sorts of client skeletons back into their respective closets, like existing rap sheets and sex scandals, before the press gets wise and blows any of their upcoming legal cases.
When the firm’s star attorney Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) goes psycho in the courtroom, stripping naked and baring all, his breakdown threatens to blow a big bucks multi-million dollar case on behalf of U/North agro-chemical company. And Clayton is sent over to figure out what’s what. It seems that the thousands of residents of a rural Midwestern community have squared off against the intimidating agribusiness corporation, claiming their toxins are seeping into the drinking water and causing a cancer epidemic. And lurking in the shadows is Tilda Swinton’s ambitious U/North dragon lady pit bull in-house defense attorney. She’s charged with getting these folks off the company’s back, even if it takes a little homicidal intrigue to get the deed done.
Suits in deadly combat may not sound like the ideal setup for a legal thriller, especially if the labels are of the pricey designer variety. But hey, this is George Clooney, who isn’t half bad no matter what he’s wearing. In a sort of kill-all-the-lawyers scenario, Clooney moves on from his recent Ocean’s 13 caper moves to a classier act as an earnest guy of humble origins. Which permanently pegs him as an outcast among the swells at his upscale firm, until a crisis of conscience, not to mention a couple of hitmen at his heels, shakes up his priorities, both personal and ecological.
Wilkinson, Swinton and also Sidney Pollack as the firm’s worry wart head honcho, masterfully heighten tension and mood as they match wits and temperaments, while dividing up into victims and villains. Though Gilroy should have assembled more thorough background checks to fill in the blanks regarding a number of sketchy personality details. But aside from a far too brief and rapid finale that seems to tie up all the loose ends on fast forward, Michael Clayton makes its case as a solid, if at times sluggish thriller.