Michael Clayton opens with the ramblings of a crazy person. Writer-director Tony Gilroy uses the hysterical voice-over to give audio to the images that introduce this world: buzzing phone lines and janitors cleaning up the offices after the workers have left for the day. This is the in-between, the grey area, the time between the sanity of daily life at work and the anxiety attacks that can sometimes kidnap our minds for several hours until we can pull ourselves back together with the light of day, a strong cup of coffee, and the sounds of a sane world.
The crazy man’s voice turns out to be that of Tom Wilkinson, giving one of his very best performances opposite George Clooney, the star of the film. Wilkinson plays the lead lawyer of a ridiculously powerful law firm that is trying to help a vastly more powerful corporation dodge a multi-million dollar lawsuit poisoned citizens have filed.
What we need to know from the outset is that Michael Clayton (Clooney) is there to clean up the mess. The mess, in this case, is Wilkinson, who has stripped himself down naked in an important deposition and chased after the plaintiffs in the case. At best, they’re looking at a lawyer who went off his meds briefly, but with bed rest and the proper medication he can and will return to the case. At worst, the man has completely lost his marbles and jeopardized their case completely. Either way, the fixer, the bagman, has been sent in to make it all right.
Clooney plays the guy who knows exactly how and what needs to be done following a major screw-up, serving only the wealthiest clients. He works for a law firm but has no real job title. He’s the invisible man. He takes his son for shared custody but appears otherwise to have no life, no woman, no joy. He is in debt from a restaurant he couldn’t afford but hoped would give him security, and on top of that, the lawyer he’s been assigned to “fix” has gone MIA.
Gilroy’s film puts on the pressure and doesn’t let up until things are cleaned up for good. Despite its frantic pacing, it never feels rushed. He gives us so much time to linger on our hero’s sad, beaten down face, just as he gives us time to look at certain images that remind us of our own lives – how much do we depend on the corporations who make our food, fill our water tanks, and practically give us the air we breathe? As power becomes more concentrated in our country, the truth becomes harder to find.
Michael Clayton is a good movie made great by the brilliant performance of Clooney, as well as Wilkinson and co-star Tilda Swinton. Clooney, in particular, is in command of this script which he tears into like a pit bull. The politically-minded Clooney seems to take particular delight in dressing down the most corrupt of the evil corporate players in this game. Anyone who’s ever watched him let loose at a press conference knows that Clooney means business. He brings all of that heat to Michael Clayton and the result is breathtaking.
It is an unsettling idea that the film takes on that powerful people rule this world and they do it quietly, behind locked doors, with wiretaps and bag men who slip in when no one is looking, clean up the mess, and slip back out again. No one is ever the wiser but somehow we all lose anyway. The film drives home the message that many of us are so drugged out on antidepressants we couldn’t see reality if it broke our nose hitting us in the face hard. Once reality sets in we can’t take that either.
Gilroy, whose writing credits include the Bourne series, directs for the first time with Michael Clayton and thus, he is still green enough to be trying to do something more with the camera than most thrillers require, which sometimes throws the film off track a bit. Some of the panning shots to voice-overs feel repetitive. But every time the film threatens to dip, Clooney pulls it right back up again – a true master at work.