4 out of 4 stars

Rating: R For Language Including Some Sexual dialogue.

Movie review: Clooney lays down the law in 'Michael Clayton'

  • Article by: Colin Covert
  • Star Tribune
  • October 12, 2007 - 5:20 PM

There's a lot of suspense churning in "Michael Clayton," even when we don't know what's going on. Tony Gilroy, screenwriter of the "Bourne" adventures, makes his writing/directing debut with a throwback to trim, intelligent moral thrillers like "The Verdict" and "Absence of Malice."

It gives us George Clooney as a functionary in a high-powered New York City law firm. He's variously described as a fixer, a bag man, a janitor. When an important client needs a hit-and-run incident handled, the partner who dispatches him to cover it up calls him "a miracle worker." His own brother, who's on the force, accusingly tells him "the lawyers think you're a cop, the cops think you're a lawyer."

With decent intentions but a backbreaking burden of debt due to bad business deals and gambling, he's trapped in a job that is corroding his soul. A lot of the tension in this legal thriller comes from watching this morally conflicted antihero wrestle with the question of just who he is.

The character is a corporate-edition private eye, and his latest assignment is babysitting a brilliant litigator (Tom Wilkinson) who has had a breakdown in court, ranting that he has become Shiva, the Indian god of death. Wilkinson can do these challenging rants without turning them comic, and he captures the oddness of genius.

Clooney, calm and well-balanced in a crisis, soothes the lawyer, who is defending Unorth, an agribusiness giant, against a $3 billion class-action pesticide-poisoning suit. Gilroy doesn't overload us with information about the particulars of the case. If you've seen "Erin Brockovich" or followed the story of atrizine entering the groundwater in southern Minnesota, you can supply the backstory. Gilroy has a generous faith in the audience's intelligence. He takes care of the little moments and lets us work out the big ideas for ourselves.

Wilkinson's manic-depressive episode threatens to expose the Achilles heel of the defense case, rattling Unorth's corporate counsel (Tilda Swinton), who launches a clumsy, dangerous coverup operation of her own.

This is an exquisitely cast movie with the kind of acting that rings true on every note, but Swinton's achingly nervous office drone is an essay in the banality of evil, a good German in control-top pantyhose. Her swan-necked vulnerability makes her almost sympathetic as she explores extrajudicial solutions to her company's problem. Soon she and Clooney are opponents in a lethal chess game that concludes with a smart, satisfying poker-table bluff.

Gilroy packs the film with clever asides. The navigation system on Clooney's car is broken, a great metaphor for his flawed moral compass. The logo for Unorth is a new leaf, and Shiva, you may remember, is not only the goddess of death but also of renewal. You leave the theater with the pleasurable feeling that you've seen a new moviemaking talent take its first confident steps.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

Colin Covertrating: R For Language Including Some Sexual dialogue. •

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