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
Running time: 2 hours