Somewhere in the first third of the writer-director Tony Gilroy's widely celebrated debut effort Michael Clayton, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) and Clayton (George Clooney) face off each other in a back alley in New York. "I'm not the enemy here" says Clayton, his voice loaded with frustration. Before walking off, Edens shoots back "Then who are you?"
There are two things worth noting in this scene that make the movie special. Neither of these is Wilkinson's pitch perfect performance as a lawyer who - following a massive attack of conscience - is coming off the rails. I expected as much from him (despite a shaky American accent).
But first, as in this scene, the actors in Michael Clayton work hard to act with each other instead of trying to stage scenes for themselves. They act like a selfless bunch - enhancing each other's characters and giving the movie a crackling kinetic energy. Later yet, in a scene in which Tilda Swinton does the unthinkable and initiates an action from which there is no turning back, Robert Prescott plays his scene opposite her with a studied disposition that adds layers to her character.
And second, this isn't the George Clooney - preening, strutting and smile-smirking with a matinee idol cock to his face - that we are used to seeing. Clooney here looks dazed, lost, frustrated. In one scene that brought a lump to my throat, when he is overwhelmed by the sheer crush of events in his personal life, he stops his car to assure his son that the boy will not grow up to be a loser. Clooney's face is almost putty here - he looks vulnerable. In the movie, he changes some of his body language to reflect a weary apprehension that we normally don't associate with him.
Clayton is a former criminal lawyer without a title at the law firm of Kenner, Bach, & Ledeen. Unofficially he is the guy people call on to clean up a mess. He refers to himself as the bag man. Edens, a brilliant lawyer and Clayton's close friend is in charge of leading the defense of a $3 billion lawsuit against U/North for deploying a poison fertilizer. Somehow Edens gets his hands on a document with evidence incriminating U/North. And foregoing his bipolar meds he has a manic attack. He strips down in the middle of a deposition. On camera.
Clayton is called in clean up the mess. Much is at stake - as is usually the case in movies like this, only director Gilroy is careful not to throw this in our faces with blaring horns. At first convinced that Edens just needs to get back on his medication and all will be well, Clayton has second thoughts as he begins to peel back the layers. Clayton's own family and their related issues are juxtaposed nicely in the movie with the events occurring around U/North.
Tilda Swinton plays Karen Crowder who has just been promoted to run U/North. When we first see her - early in the film - she is in a bathroom having a menopausal hot flash. Later yet, we see her rehearsing for a television interview with interspersed scenes from the actual event. Clearly this is a woman who has worked hard to get where she is and carries her ambitions on the back of careful organization. Swinton tries to get the situation under control - but in her own way, thus escalating Clayton's dilemma.
Swinton's biggest contribution to this movie is that she plays a rather typical character in a very atypical way. Its a shrewd turn because with every scene she is able to convey her reasons for what she is about to do.
Gilroy's movie is a drama disguised as a legal thriller. But it is so well written and wonderfully executed that this take on a beaten-down genre seems fresh. Often Gilroy's unhurried sense of how to capture the action and move the narrative allows him to breeze through the (few) awkward parts of the plot.