It will no doubt be said time and again of Michael Clayton: best John Grisham adaptation ever. Only, of course, it did not spring from the billion-dollar mind of the attorney turned franchise but from Tony Gilroy, who made his big-screen bow 15 years ago as screenwriter of the ice-skating melodrama The Cutting Edge. Since then, Gilroy has shored up his now-estimable rep as 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 till they break. This is as languid as the Bourne movies are feverish, as nuanced and intricate as those films are full-steam-ahead. Even when a car catches fire in the middle of a frostbitten nowhere, it feels like an addendum to a reverie, a quiet moment (with horses, no less) punctuated by a sonic boom. The 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 as they wait for the inevitable blowup.
That said, the story is relatively easy to follow: It's Erin Brockovich sans the feel-good, yet another story about the 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 — only Arthur's but a cracked shell of his former brilliant self. His is the first voice the audience hears: Arthur narrates a rambling confession to Michael that almost sounds like a suicide note.
Arthur, who disappeared after running naked from a deposition, possesses 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 sonofabitch — want Arthur found and the potential damage contained. U/North's in-house counsel, played by Tilda Swinton beneath a layer of extra flab and 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 the hollow man himself, in need of redemption — or at least a shower and a shave. Michael may have been hot shit years ago, but now he's broke, having invested all his dough in a doomed restaurant, and alone, barely a father to the 10-year-old son he lost in the divorce. He's a degenerate gambler, leaving piles of filthy lucre on underground poker-room tables. And he's not even a good fixer anymore: When first we see Clayton, he's stumbling around a spoiled suburbanite's kitchen, up to his ass in a run-of-the-mill drunk-driving case he would have easily made vanish with his magic wand once upon a long, long time ago.
It will take the audience a while to realize that the movie's earliest scenes are actually flash-forwards, but Gilroy's not using the commonplace device as some kind of a lookie-there-Ma trick. Rather than taking the audience out of the film (as was the case in 21 Grams, where the gimmick kept drawing our attention away from the story), the tactic here sucks us further in — to the point that an event seen and absorbed early on can still surprise the second time around. It appears as though Gilroy has learned a great deal from Steven Soderbergh, the first director to wring from Clooney a great performance when they paired up for Out of Sight — the movie that got Clooney to stop acting with his eyelids. 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's 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 in a pile of legal documents absolute truths worth lying and dying for. Michael Clayton has all the makings of something utterly familiar and ordinary, but it argues its case as anything but.