Released in September of last year, Michael Clayton stars a stressed-looking George Clooney in the eponymous role. Clayton is a "fixer" for a high-powered law firm: once a man of the courtroom, he now works behind the scenes, sorting out dirty problems and embarrassing situations for clients who can't afford to have their names pulled through the mud.
The film introduces the character audaciously, with Michael arriving at the house of an arrogant member of the super-elite who has just run over a jogger. In the face of his swearing and shouting Clayton is impassive, disinterested in the other man's posturing. We quickly learn, however, that Clayton has bigger things on his mind: soon his car has blown up, and we cut to a flash-back four days earlier showing the events leading up to the bombing.
The plot is simple but efficiently written, revolving around a class-action law suit between a group of farmers suffering the effects of a chemical weedkiller and the agricultural megacorp U-North responsible for the product. The massive machinery of litigation is realistically invoked but unlike a Grisham-style pot-boiler the focus is all on the very human characters lost inside these megalithic machinations. All the main players present public faces of professional calm that mask lost souls: in a memorable sequence we cut between the U-North executive (Tilda Swinton) rehearsing a television interview in her hotel room, shaky and despairing, and then delivering it with absolute cool later to the cameras.
The line between personal and professional becomes blurred for Clayton's friend and colleague Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) when after a long battle with manic depression he overbalances in a meeting in stunning style. Clayton is sent in to "mop up", but Edens is too far gone: disillusioned with his life, with the system but deliriously happy at being, for the first time in years, free of the machine.
This may be Clooney's movie and his character's brooding face fills nearly every frame, but it's Wilkinson who really injects a soul into the proceedings. His idiot savant Edens is personable, intelligent and crazy all at once, one moment quoting legal statutes and the next declaring "I am Shiva, God of Death!" His shift from depression to a new purpose is both heart-warming and unsettling. When later a similar shift happens for Clayton, Clooney gives us much less to relish.
The screenplay by director Tony Gilroy is a treat, wasting little time on exposition of plot or the moral difficulties of its characters, letting the performances carry the weight of the drama while the dialogue fills out the world. From the outset the audience is playing catch-up to understand what's afoot, but we are never left behind. Scenes between Clayton, his son and his family are particularly enjoyable.
The thriller aspects of the film are fairly straightforward - no implausible twists, and unusually, the characters are often behind the audience in what they know. The weakest aspect of the film is its questioning of Clayton's morality - his job is clearly immoral and it can hardly come as a surprise to discover U-North are guilty of malpractice. However, in its depiction of the lonely, isolated and eccentric people operating the great war-machines of the law, it's fascinating.
The DVD comes with a few extras but they're fairly thin: some deleted scenes, mostly cut for time, but featuring excellent performances including a character entirely absent from the released film (but equally, adding little). These scenes also come with a commentary track.
All in all, an excellent evening's viewing.