Written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson and Tilda Swinton.
From the very first moments of Michael Clayton, the stress level is high. The urgent ranting of a desperate man is heard over the lit-up skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan. In the boardroom of a prestigious New York law firm, an army of attorneys labors through the night. Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) is sweating bullets in the ladies' room. And then we see Michael Clayton (George Clooney) in a seedy, high-stakes card game. He's losing, and not just at cards: he's recently lost his shirt in a bar he invested in with his addict brother. A late night phone call sends him to suburban Westchester County. Clayton is a fixer-that is, he cleans up legal messes for his firm's corporate clients. Clayton clearly hates his job. "I'm not a miracle worker," he tells the frantic client, "I'm a janitor. The math is simple: the smaller the mess, the easier it is for me to clean up." After handling the situation, Clayton heads back to the city in the early dawn. He pulls over next to a grassy hill and, almost as if in a dream, walks up to three horses. The film's first quiet moment-as Clayton gazes intently at the horses and they look back at him-is shattered by an explosion: Clayton's car has been blown up.
I'm not giving anything away here: this is just movie's first ten minutes. The film then goes back to cover the four days from the beginning of the corporate crisis through the attempt on Clayton's life. Clayton is a burnout, a former litigator who never made partner and who's stuck in his fixer role. Worse, he's a burnout who can't afford to quit: not only has Clayton lost everything, he owes money to the bar's other investors (the kind that don't take no for an answer). The crisis begins when Clayton's employer's most brilliant litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has a meltdown during a deposition, threatening a huge class-action suit against UNorth, a chemical company accused of selling a highly toxic weed killer to small, family-owned farms. Clayton is sent to "fix" Edens, a friend and mentor as well as colleague, but Edens doesn't want to be fixed. He's disgusted with his own janitor role and has discovered evidence that UNorth is more than just liable, they're downright evil. "I have blood on my hands," he tells Clayton. "I'm an accomplice.... I'm Shiva, the god of death."
To reveal more of the plot would spoil things for those who are still planning to see this thriller (it's out on video as of February 19), though the twists and turns of the plot aren't really (or, at least, not entirely) what keep viewers glued to the screen. Nothing that happens is in itself all that shocking: is anyone surprised that corporations are greedy, lawyers are venal, and that corruption runs rampant in high-stakes businesses? But that's part of what makes this film so interesting: it's a thriller in which the most interesting part is watching the players-Arthur Edens's stunning clarity in the midst of madness, Karen Crowder, UNorth's in-house counsel, struggling with fear and ambition, and Clayton himself, for whom everything in his life has come to a head-and the choices they make. "I'm not the guy you kill," Clayton says. "I'm the guy you buy." The question is: is this who he wants to be?
Michael Clayton is a powerful, complex and well-crafted thriller with some great performances, particularly by Wilkinson and Swinton. And George Clooney just seems to keep getting better, handling another role (as in Syriana) where he can't-and doesn't-get by on his looks and charm. This could well be a second acting Oscar for Clooney (and he didn't have to gain a pound).
Michael Clayton is definitely a Best Picture contender, though I believe the statue will go to No Country for Old Men.