'Michael Clayton': Clooney's Dark Knight of the Soul

George Clooney wipes the smirk off his face as a lawyer caught up in corporate intrigue in the riveting new film. Tom Wilkinson, background, plays a law firm partner.
George Clooney wipes the smirk off his face as a lawyer caught up in corporate intrigue in the riveting new film. Tom Wilkinson, background, plays a law firm partner. (Photos By Myles Aronowitz -- Warner Bros. Pictures)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 5, 2007

George Clooney glides blearily through a long Manhattan night in "Michael Clayton," a nervy legal thriller in which he suppresses his congenital charisma in a fascinating anti-star turn. A throwback in the best sense of the word, "Michael Clayton," which marks the auspicious directorial debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy (best known for the "Bourne" movies), harks back to the great films of the 1970s in its gritty urban realism, suave sense of style and moral complexity.

From its eerily hushed opening sequences in a Manhattan law office after hours to its pared-down narrative and sleek visual design, "Michael Clayton" proves the adage that less can be much more. In the tradition of such classics as "All the President's Men," "Klute" and "Three Days of the Condor," it's a film that dares not to patronize or pander to its audience, but rather to assume viewers possess the intelligence to connect its twisty trail of dots.

It helps enormously to have Clooney as our guide in the title role, a "fixer" at a white-shoe law firm who, over the course of four days, finds himself enmeshed in an increasingly sticky web of corporate intrigue, personal financial straits, madness and murder. Clayton is weary, and not only because he's the guy high-powered clients call when they've been nicked for a DUI or some other peccadillo; he's got his own problems, in the form of some unresolved family issues and a penchant for backroom poker games. Clooney, eschewing the glib, glamorous persona of the "Ocean's" movies and other slick bonbons, is in baggy-eyed "Syriana" mode here, moving through the days-long 3 a.m. of the soul with none of the cocky affectations that he often relies on.

Clooney is wrong for the role of Michael Clayton, a Queens boy with relatives "on the cops." He doesn't have the accent for it, or the blue-collar cred. But he's just the right star for "Michael Clayton," which depends on Clooney to keep filmgoers interested. And he has the chops to go head to head with an extraordinarily accomplished supporting cast. As Arthur Edens, a law partner whose work on a huge class action suit threatens to unravel the case, the great Tom Wilkinson delivers spoken arias with soaring, manic conviction worthy of Peter Finch in "Network." Sydney Pollack, as Clayton's ruthless boss, thoroughly schools Clooney's Clayton in every scene he's in (it was crucial for Gilroy to find an actor who could convincingly dominate Clooney, and he found him). But the linchpin of "Michael Clayton" is Tilda Swinton, who, as one of the firm's clients, is the very personification of female ambition and ambivalence. Watching as her character, Karen Crowder, nervously prepares for a crucial presentation, carefully laying out her nylons, is at once chilling and heartbreaking.

Together, the cast of "Michael Clayton" performs a tough, taut chamber piece, as each character confronts his or her personal ethical edge. Gilroy has shot the film using long takes, a blue-gray palette and subdued, unflashy editing; but as formally elegant as much of the film is, it still bristles with spontaneity and muscular brio. The film's most memorable sequence, a quick, efficient assassination, is extraordinary not only because it transpires over the course of one tense take, but because it does so entirely in silence.

Such is the balance -- between the brutal and the balletic, the star and the anti-star, the glamour and the grit -- that Gilroy strikes throughout "Michael Clayton," whose clean lines and smooth surfaces are never ruptured by the wasted moment or gratuitous melodrama. In a word, it's a mature piece of work, and like a harbinger of the fall season, marks the annual return to the screen of intelligence, taste and class. Hallelujah, and hire the babysitter: It's grown-up time again at the movies.

Michael Clayton (119 minutes, at the AMC Loews Georgetown) is rated R for profanity, including some sexual dialogue.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company