Watching this film makes you feel that Gilroy, best known for writing credits on all three "Bourne" films, has poured the energy pent up during a decade and a half in Hollywood into this strong and confident directorial debut about desperate men searching for redemption in a cold and ruthless world.
In "Michael Clayton," Gilroy's been helped by an excellent cast that relishes the script's texture, starting with Clooney as the titular character, "the keeper of the secret sins" for the "vast and powerful" New York law firm of Kenner, Bach & Leeden.
Expertly supporting Clooney are Tom Wilkinson as the organization's ace litigator, a man who is at once Clayton's close friend and biggest crisis. Then there's Tilda Swinton as the in-house attorney for an agrochemical giant called U/North that is involved in a multibillion-dollar class action suit, with Wilkinson's character working with her as the lead attorney.
Issues like corporate malfeasance lurk around the edges of "Michael Clayton," along with themes of moral responsibility, conscience and regeneration. Rather than making the film unwieldy, they add a welcome hint of substance to what is at heart a crackerjack tale of suspicion and anxiety, a film that understands the secret pleasures of showing how the powerful operate when they think no one is looking.
Michael Clayton has been at home in that world for 17 years, taking pride in his role as the guy you call when calls need to be made, who sardonically views himself as "a janitor: the smaller the mess, the easier it is for me to clean up." Filmmaker Gilroy has said he's "interested in the guy who's the best at something," and when it comes to New York fixers, Clayton is the man.
But being the man has taken its toll, and when we meet Clayton he is god's weary, beaten-down soul, a Willie Loman who's wondering what it all means. He couldn't be more different, frankly, from glib, self-satisfied Danny Ocean. But Clooney, who apparently was genuinely exhausted when shooting began, handles the transition beautifully and uses a quiet form of charisma to get hisstoryacross.
Rather than tell this tale straight, Gilroy takes the risk of bringing us in during the middle of it, increasing our interest by making us briefly speculate about exactly what is going on before gradually filling us in and introducing the characters properly.
The first person we meet is heard rather than seen, delivering a voice-over that frankly doesn't seem to be making much sense. In fact, playing over cool visuals of a deserted Manhattan law office (Robert Elswit is the reliable cinematographer) is the rant of a deranged individual whose thoughts and ideas are about to become central to the story.
The man we're hearing is Arthur Edens (Wilkinson), the most feared litigator in Clayton's firm, a killer in the courtroom who for the last six years has been defending the good name of a particularly nasty U/North pesticide.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Edens has a psychotic breakdown. This not only threatens the case and puts U/North attorney Karen Crowder (Swinton) into a terrifying tizzy, it threatens the plans of Marty Bach (a well-used Sydney Pollack), one of the firm's founding partners, to merge Kenner, Bach & Ledeen with a London firm. Naturally, he calls on Clayton to clean up the mess, but if that ever was a simple job, it's not anymore.
Wilkinson, as those who remember his Oscar-nominated performance in "In the Bedroom" will be expecting, is an exceptional actor who does some of his best work here, playing a man who goes in and out of sanity in a way that leaves it unnervingly uncertain just when he is rational and when he is ranting.
As the tightly wound Crowder, Swinton projects the agony of having to pretend to be someone she really isn't. When Crowder first hears about Michael Clayton and digs into his résumé, the kind of attorney he is frankly baffles her. "Who is this guy?" Crowder asks an associate. Both she and the audience are about to find out.
"Michael Clayton." MPAA rating: R, for language, including some sexual dialogue. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes. In general release.