It will no doubt be said of Michael Clayton: best John Grisham adaptation ever. Only, of course, it did not spring from the billion-dollar mind of the lawyer turned franchise. Instead, it's from Tony Gilroy, who made his big-screen bow 15 years ago as the screenwriter of the ice-skating melodrama The Cutting Edge. Since then, Gilroy has shored up his now-estimable rep as the writer of the Jason Bourne series (insomuch as he's the one who writes the few words that director Paul Greengrass throws into his cinematic blender).
No less obsessed with strangling tension and its liberating release in his directorial debut, Gilroy lopes in the opposite direction with Michael Clayton, starring George Clooney as the titular fixer in a law office where attorneys like to bend laws until they break. This is as languid as the Bourne movies are feverish, as nuanced and intricate as those films are full-steam-ahead. A dreamlike vibe permeates the entire movie — Michael Clayton seems to exist in a world where everyone's half-asleep, listing from one bad thing to another, waiting for the inevitable blowup.
That said, the story is relatively easy to follow. It's Erin Brockovich sans the feel-good parts, yet another story about a Big Bad Corporation doing anything and everything to crush the little people — in this case, the little people it's poisoning to death. For six years, an agrochemical company called U/North has been fighting a class-action suit in which the plaintiffs allege that its fertilizer is lethal. A brilliant litigator named Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has been defending U/North — but Arthur is now a cracked shell of his former brilliant self.
Arthur, who disappeared after running naked from a deposition, is in possession of a single document that threatens to undermine U/North's entire case — six years' worth of defense, gone like that. His firm's partners — among them director Sydney Pollack, once more brilliantly cast as a devious, deadpan son of a bitch — want Arthur found and the potential damage contained. U/North's in-house counsel, played by Tilda Swinton beneath a sheen of dripping sweat, would like Arthur muzzled — by any means necessary, she tells the buttoned-up goon squad that U/North employs for emergencies just like this.
Caught between them is Michael Clayton, the hollow man himself, in need of redemption — or at least a shower and a shave. Michael is broke and alone, barely a father to the 10-year-old son he lost in his divorce. He has left piles of filthy lucre on underground poker-room tables. And he's not even a good fixer anymore: When we first see him, he's stumbling around a spoiled suburbanite's kitchen, up to his ass in a run-of-the-mill drunk-driving case he would easily have made vanish once upon a long, long time ago.
Gilroy seems to have learned a great deal from Steven Soderbergh, the first director to wring a great performance from Clooney. Like Soderbergh, Gilroy uses the time-shifting device to heighten the disquieting surrealism of the piece — the audience, like the characters, are never sure of what's happening, only that one betrayal will lead to something worse.
It would seem an impossible (or at least a preposterously pretentious) trick, turning the commonplace "legal thriller" into something deeply felt. But Gilroy is up to the challenge, as is his uniformly astounding cast — Clooney, especially, as the charmed and charming man stripped of his superpowers, but also Wilkinson and Swinton as the mirror images of each other, who find absolute truths in a pile of legal documents. Michael Clayton has all the makings of something utterly familiar and ordinary, but it argues its case as anything but.