Review: ‘Michael Clayton’ thrilling, suspenseful

At the beginning of the legal suspense thriller “Michael Clayton,” the dazed title character, emerging from the rut of rottenness he’s long occupied, has approached three roadside horses whose guilelessness amazes him when — blam! — his nearby car explodes. What has made him a marked and a shattered man then plays out in a lengthy flashback that writer-director Tony Gilroy presents as both a neo-1970s paranoid thriller and a portrait of a moral awakening. Familiar but captivating drama ensues on each front.

Gilroy, making his directorial debut and boasting writing credits that include the “Bourne” trilogy and “The Devil’s Advocate,” clearly likes characters who are coming to terms with their shady zones, and, in the case of 45-year-old debt-plagued Michael Clayton (George Clooney), this involves being a “fixer” who smoothes out client-misbehavior problems for a top Manhattan law firm. Michael’s transformation begins when the firm’s ace litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has a crisis-of-conscience breakdown and begins sabotaging a class-action settlement he’s handling for U/North, a guilty agrochemical company. Assigned to stop Arthur, Michael instead begins investigating U/North’s doings.

Naturally, this distresses Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), U/North’s chief counsel. Karen has, literally, a killer style when dealing with those threatening to thwart her.

There’s nothing stratospheric about any of this, and Gilroy’s plot sometimes plays like a mix of “Erin Brockovich,” “The Insider,” “Silkwood,” “Network” and Alan J. Pakula’s thrillers. Following the horse moment, things get fuzzy for a spell.

But Gilroy soon achieves sufficient coherence and tension and delivers a sharp, solid, thoughtful drama about corporate misconduct, its human toll and how vile environs infect decent people who operate therein and who equate power with worth.

No minimalist, Gilroy includes subplots, but, unlike the silly romantic and action interludes Hollywood usually serves up, they’re character-enhancing and satisfying. A visit with Michael’s working-class family explains why Michael doesn’t quite click with his elite colleagues. The conversations between Michael and his 10-year-old son are affecting in their harshness.

And you couldn’t ask for a stronger cast. Clooney has evolved into not only a charismatic leading man but a multidimensional one, and you believe every jot of his grizzled, tainted, weary Michael despite the implausibility of Michael’s Hollywood-style, almost saintly conversion. Swinton’s Karen is an impressive portrait of a cutthroat repulsed by herself. Wilkinson’s Arthur, whose keenly scripted rants suggest Howard Beale, and Sydney Pollack, playing Michael’s machinating boss, are also terrific.

Michael Clayton ***½

Starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack

Written and directed by Tony Gilroy

Rated R

Running time: 2 hours

artsentertainmentOther Arts

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed legislation intended to help California schools reopen. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Newsom signs $6.6 billion school reopening legislative package

By Eli Walsh Bay City News Foundation Gov. Gavin Newsom and state… Continue reading

Recology executives have acknowledged overcharging city ratepayers. (Mira Laing/2017 Special to S.F. Examiner)
Recology to repay customers $95M in overcharged garbage fees, city attorney says

San Francisco’s waste management company, Recology, has agreed to repay its customers… Continue reading

A construction worker watches a load for a crane operator at the site of the future Chinatown Muni station for the Central Subway on Tuesday, March 3, 2021. (Sebastian Miño-Bucheli / Special to the S.F. Examiner)
Major construction on Central Subway to end by March 31

SFMTA board approves renegotiated contract with new deadline, more contractor payments

(Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Settlement clears path for all youth, high school sports to resume in California

John Maffei The San Diego Union-Tribune All youth and high school sports… Continue reading

Most Read