‘Michael Clayton’ movie review: George Clooney legal thriller an instant classic


A top-drawer legal thriller with some terrific performances, Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton avoids the usual clichés while becoming that rare film that perfectly balances suspense with dramatic content.

A good thriller is hard enough to come by these days; one that manages to feel like it’s based in reality, and gets us to care about its characters, is a breath of fresh air.

George Clooney turns in his best performance to date, and the sure hand with which everything is delivered – surprising from a first-time director – assures Gilroy of a rewarding future.

Clooney stars as the titular character, a ‘fixer’ for top New York legal firm Kenner, Bach, & Ledeen who appropriately refers to his position as a “janitor”: he cleans up the messes left by clients and members of the firm. Currently, KB&L are defending pharmaceutical company U/North in a large class-action lawsuit; in the middle of a deposition, the firm’s top attorney Arthur Edens has a mental breakdown.

Naturally, this leaves the client – and corporate lawyer Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) – concerned. When Clayton is called in to clean up the mess, he discovers Arthur may be trying to sabotage the case – and he may have good reason to do so.

Clooney is tough and determined in the lead, shedding the self-conscious movie-star persona of Danny Ocean, and establishes himself as a legitimate acting force; he has at least three scenes – one with Wilkinson, one with Sydney Pollack as the firm’s head, and a final showdown with Swinton – where dialogue kept me on the edge of my seat. Of course, Gilroy, who adapted the Bourne trilogy for the big screen, deserves a lot of credit as well.

Exquisite lensing by Robert Elswit creates a slick, brooding atmosphere, measured editing sets a relaxed pace; the style couldn’t be more removed from that of Paul Greengrass’, who directed Gilroy’s last two Bourne scripts to great success, but the result is the same: a thriller that is nearly perfect within the confines of the genre.

While excellent on many levels, what I appreciated most about the film was the reluctance to bow down to cliché; we seen a lot of this before, and come to expect certain actions that only characters in movies seem to make – here, we get decisions that could be made by real people.

It shows in the minor details – what was the last contemporary thriller you can think of that doesn’t feature a firearm?

Michael Clayton


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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