The first 10 minutes of Michael Clayton, the directorial debut from prolific screenwriter Tony Gilroy, are a set-up. We're given the titular character in the form of a grizzled and disheveled George Clooney, staggering out of a New York card room to take a call from a lawyer at his firm—a client is in trouble, and Clayton, the resident fixer, needs to get on the case. What we soon discover is that the beginning is actually the end, and the Clayton we're introduced to isn't the Clayton we'll spend the rest of the film getting to know.
So, do the means justify the end?
Gilroy's thriller is a throwback to the harsh, anti-establishment, conspiracy-theory thrillers of the 1970s, though its culture of corporate corruption feels well-suited to today.
Four days before the film opens, Clayton is sent to Milwaukee to rein in Arthur Edens (the always-great Tom Wilkinson), the lead litigator in a long-term class-action suit, representing U/North, an enormous multinational whose weed killer has harmed farmers. Edens has, for all intents and purposes, gone off his meds and lost his shit, and he refuses to be placated. In fact, he's gone over to the other side, and he has the documentation to bring down the entire case, forcing the company, led by Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) to seek alternative means of satisfaction—read: hitmen. And Clayton, who is facing loan sharks and mounting dissatisfaction with his job, finds himself trying to figure out just what the hell is going on.
He might not be the only one. Michael Clayton is a very complex, intelligent film, but it demands the viewer's attention. It's easy to get lost in the murky ethical waters in which that Clayton finds himself, but Clooney's performance is strong enough to bring some stability to the entire morass. He's the sort of actor who delivers the goods when he picks the right projects, and Michael Clayton, which has its moments of tension and violence, is most certainly the right project for him.