Michael Clayton (15)

Legal eagles in limbo
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The Independent Culture

Tony Gilroy's corporate conspiracy thriller opens with such a powerful sense of foreboding that the ceiling could cave in and you'd still be sitting there, gripped. The story flips between three individuals who have made their name by being controlled, super-confident types, yet, right now, seem on the brink of cracking up.

One of them is Michael Clayton (George Clooney), a backroom fixer for a high-powered New York law firm. To all appearances he is an alpha-male professional in a bespoke suit, but the hang of his shoulders speaks of a disappointed man, and the seedy poker game in which we first find him immersed suggests a desperate one, too.

The second is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), chief counsel of agrichemical company U/North, who's advising on the multimillion-dollar settlement of a class-action suit that Clayton's firm is just about to conclude. She also is suffering a crisis of confidence, and practises her corporate spiel in a bathroom mirror so obsessively you can almost feel the anxiety radiating from her.

What neither she nor Clayton want to deal with at this late stage in the proceedings is a spanner in the works, which is unfortunately what Clayton's colleague, top litigator Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has just thrown – not only accusing U/North of criminal malpractice but stripping off his clothes in mid-conference to ensure, as it were, maximum exposure.

The damage limitation seems obvious: Arthur has skipped his medication, and Clayton needs to get him back on it. But right at the end of the prologue there's a car bomb that blows the whole story into ambiguous fragments: a cat-and-mouse game is afoot, but as yet we can't tell who's chasing whom.

Tony Gilroy, directing for the first time, has already made it as a screenwriter, his most successful work being the three Bourne pictures. This debut is a much quieter affair than those kinetic action-thrillers. There's a kind of car chase late on, and a murder, but nothing remotely approximating to Matt Damon crashing through windows and choking a man to death in a bathroom. Michael Clayton is set in a narrow milieu of gleaming town cars, conference lounges and bland hotel rooms, where legal execs talk tough and wonder if they'll still have a job after the next merger. The law firm's offices, high above the glittering panorama of Manhattan, convey the loftiness of their professional standing, if not of their moral outlook. It all looks and sounds rather... John Grisham.

That it has a good deal more class is down to Gilroy's subtle calibration of suspense, the way he keeps us guessing as to what is really going on. When Arthur announces that "I am Shiva, the god of death", you assume that his info on U/North's production of a carcinogenic weed killer is more paranoid ranting; and his interest in the contents of a children's book seems quite as doolally. (Mercifully, we are spared the spectacle of Wilkinson running naked through a car park.) Gradually, however, the balance tips the other way, and we enter a twilight world of white-collar malfeasance and cover-up, at the centre of which Clayton finds himself an unwitting accomplice.

His moral compass is looking decidedly shaky. His anomalous role in the company – 17 years' service without ever being offered a partnership – has left him vulnerable; his gambling habit has left him in debt and a business venture has gone south because of his alcoholic brother's betrayal. Clooney makes something tender and sorrowful of this man who has sorted out other people's lives while allowing his own to fall to pieces.

Swinton and Wilkinson keep up the Brit end of things – no surprise when you recall their fine previous work in American thrillers, the former in The Deep End, the latter in In the Bedroom. But the picture is stolen from under their noses, I think, by Sydney Pollack as the head of the legal firm. Better known as a director and producer, he has never properly registered as the remarkable actor he is. My fault entirely, because I had forgotten his terrific work in Husbands and Wives and in the otherwise disastrous Eyes Wide Shut. Here he does a spot-on combination of authority and anxious crisis management; from the moment he magisterially dismisses a pesky journalist on the phone to a fabulous confrontation with Clayton, he is mesmerising as this thoroughly unsurprisable old hand.

In its wintry overview of corporate black arts and blackguards, the film harks back to the paranoid thrillers of the Seventies, when Americans thought corruption would never go lower than the Nixon era. Now they know better – or worse. Gilroy, targeting what he calls a "psychopathic corporate mirage", shifts the traditional emphases at the end, and you may feel he's earned the right to a little wishful thinking. Expertly paced, tautly written and superbly cast, it may turn out to be the most auspicious debut of the year.

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