He may wear a crisp, black suit, cruise around in a Mercedes and spend his days in the law offices of a gleaming high-rise, but Michael Clayton doesn't have the kind of job where you can just kick back with a couple of beers at 5:30 p.m. As played by an incomparably unsettled George Clooney, Clayton is a fixer — think Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction, but much more mundane. Where the latter vacuumed up blood and brain matter, Clayton does damage control on sensitive documents, freaked-out defendants and botched depositions. Both are on call at all hours of the night, and both take care of messes that would otherwise tarnish their employers' reputations. But where Keitel's "wolf" strides though life with cock-of-the-walk pride, Clayton seems to be dissolving inside, all the while never loosening his tie. Having the weight of the world on your shoulders has never looked so suave.
One of the great things about Bourne trilogy screenwriter Tony Gilroy's directorial debut — a thriller as cool, calm and collected as they come — is that he and Clooney strip the veneer off the stereotype of the hotshot corporate shark, a figure we've been taught to envy since at least the early years of the Reagan era. Gilroy takes us into a world of clandestine, back-room poker games, 11th-hour negotiations and "on the company" perks like hookers and hundred-grand luxury sedans; then, about 15 minutes in, he quite literally explodes our preconceptions about this uniquely American, capitalist fantasy figure.
And if there's any one superstar you can hire to subvert an audience's expectations, it's Clooney, arguably the most perversely bankable leading man in Hollywood. Unlike most pretty boys looking to gain some credibility, Clooney doesn't deal in chameleon-like self-denial (think Ed Norton) and — his torture scene in Syriana notwithstanding — he doesn't offer himself up for pity-inducing self-flagellation (Mel Gibson, this means you). Instead, he uses the sorts of gifts only good genetics can provide — the expressive folds of his forehead, those pleading eyes, the deep, sultry bass of his voice — to seduce us into thinking his characters lead lives worth envying.
That may be true of the Ocean's movies, of course, but in Michael Clayton, Gilroy piles an epic amount of worry onto his leading man's psyche. Given the impossible job of reigning in Arthur (a brilliantly unhinged Tom Wilkinson), a manic-depressive colleague who's threatening to undermine their firm's defense, Clayton is sent on a paranoid journey that illustrates exactly how desperate his employers really are. On the one hand, there's his mentor Marty (Sydney Pollack), for whom an impending merger trumps any sort of loyalty to Clayton and Arthur. And then there's the evil corporate conglomerate Arthur is poorly defending, U/North, represented by the icy corporate shill Karen (Tilda Swinton). Karen is the kind of woman who, in a bit of reductive filmmaking shorthand, spends hours in front of her mirror practicing the company's carefully worded press releases. But as played by Swinton, she's still a flesh-and-blood human being, one who can't quite live with the things she's done to get ahead: She's Lady Macbeth in a Burberry scarf, ruining lives with a stroke of her Blackberry.
The underlying messages in Michael Clayton are so thinly veiled — and politically trendy right now — it would be hard to call them subtext: Multinational corporations are more powerful than the government, Oprah and God combined; the modern world is giving us all cancer; and you can and will be eradicated if it improves someone's bottom line. But you don't have to necessarily buy into the movie's dogma to enjoy it. Gilroy's meticulous attention to character keeps you fascinated even as you outguess the plot's next move, and the chilly, exacting camerawork by Robert Elswit ups the movie's suspense quotient considerably — you never know who or what is going to materialize at the far corners of the frame.
If anything, Gilroy indulges in too much detail when it comes to the fractured relationships within the Clayton clan. The stakes are high enough for our hero as it is; we don't really need to be introduced to his junkie brother, bitter sister, gruff dad, precocious son and so on and so on. But after two hours of Clooney's beautifully modulated, restrained performance, Michael Clayton achieves the sort of scalding, cathartic finale you only get from the best paranoid thrillers. At that point in the film, all Gilroy has to do is train the camera on his hero's smiling mug to send you out of the theater feeling that Clayton has made his last, most triumphant "fix." —Michael Hastings