Despite their perceived lack of financial success, George Clooney over the past several years has made a concerted effort to challenge both himself as an actor and us as an audience with subtle characters that are not often seen on the screen today. Michael Clayton is perhaps his finest attempt and a masterful directorial debut by Tony Gilroy (writer of the Bourne Trilogy films).
Clooney as Clayton is the “fixer” for a large New York law firm. A gambler, an ex-husband, there’s plenty here that could feel contrived to establish him as the likable anti-hero but both actor and director handle the script and pacing of dialogue in such a way that never allow us to feel pity, merely a relatable empathy for someone who has become so useful at a job that no one can fully explain, he questions his own contribution to the world whilst never becoming enveloped in his own importance. To give Clayton’s past too much attention would more than likely this but Clooney uses a quiet charisma that few could doubt.
Gilroy avoids telling a completely linear narrative, dropping us into the middle of the fray, allowing us to speculate before we are introduced to the characters later. The voice-over in the scene manage to both unsettle and establish what will become the central plot – the breakdown of Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) who now seems to be working against U/North and it’s attorney Karen Crowder (the always vibrant Tilda Swinton) and also threatening Marty Bach’s (a subdued Sydney Pollack) potential merger with a London firm; Clayton must pick up the pieces.
Wilkinson again plays his role similar to that of In The Bedroom but where in the latter his righteousness could be arrogant even in the circumstances, here he seems to have finally managed to contain himself enough to give a truly powerful performance. Swinton portrays an otherwise single-faceted part with an added nuance that lays behind the otherwise frantic image required of her.
This could have ended up as an abomination on the screen. The combination of subtlety and clever, direct dialogue required of the cast is something that would overwhelm even the most well known cast but through simple yet compact direction the actors never seem stifled or forced. Therefore Michael Clayton is a tale of intellectual simplicity; but if you’re looking for a (slightly more) glib Danny Ocean, you’re watching the wrong movie.