Michael Clayton


  • Written and directed by Tony Gilroy

Think of Michael Clayton as the flip side of Erin Brockovich. This time, the hero works for a law firm defending an evil corporate giant from the people it has poisoned. And no, you’re not supposed to root for him winning his case. (There’s an actual connection between the two movies. Brockovich director Steven Soderbergh executive-produced Michael Clayton).

But where Brockovich is an inspiring tale of a true-life working-class heroine, Michael Clayton is a totally fictitious thriller. George Clooney plays the title character, a fixer for a big New York law firm. When something goes wrong–say, a client is involved in a hit-and-run–he’s the first guy on the scene.

This time the mess gets really ugly. The head lawyer in a huge litigation case (Tom Wilkinson) goes off his meds and develops a conscience. Clayton must get the guy under control or billions could be lost. In true thriller fashion, the plot twists in surprising ways, people’s lives are in danger, and it’s not always easy to tell the friends from the enemies.

Writer/director Tony Gilroy has written other thrillers (including all three Bourne movies), yet he seems to have trouble with the form’s construction. The plot leaks with holes. A man locks himself in a hotel bathroom, then escapes through a bedroom window, leaving the bathroom locked from the inside. Extremely competent professionals make surprisingly stupid mistakes when the plot demands it. We’re told the outcome of the movie’s big third-act suspense scene in the first few minutes of the picture.

So why did i give this thriller a ?

Acting and character. Gilroy wrote several complex, interesting people into his thriller, then cast them to perfection. I’m not just talking about Clooney and the always-dependable Wilkinson. Tilda Swinton’s corporate lawyer reeks of unprincipled ambition, but also of private insecurities. And Sydney Pollack gives another solid performance as Clooney’s boss–a decent man who’s compartmentalized the evil in his work. The world, I suspect, is full of people like that.

I also suspect that Gilroy wanted to explore such characters more than he wanted to put together a perfect thriller. I can’t say I blame him.