MICHAEL CLAYTON directed and written by Tony Gilroy, with George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson and Sydney Pollack. 119 minutes. A Warner Brothers release. Opens Friday (October 5). Rating: NNNN
Certain actors get better as they get less good-looking. William Holden may have been the biggest box-office draw of the 50s, but he became an interesting actor in the 60s, when some of the shine got knocked off him and some middle-aged dismay crept in at the edges, a process that culminated in The Wild Bunch, shot when he was 50 and when Sam Peckinpah had him feeling about 80.
There's something of that in George Clooney's performances in Syriana and Michael Clayton, which seem aimed at balancing the ridiculous cool of the Ocean's movies. These performances don't just posit Clooney as a "real" actor; they're evidence that he dirties up nice.
In Michael Clayton, the directorial debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy (he wrote all three Bourne movies and The Devil's Advocate), Clooney is a man under pressure. It's being exerted by his ex-wife, his brother and the law firm where he's laboured for 17 years without making partner. (He's the guy who fixes things. You need to make your kid's pot-dealing bust disappear - he's the guy you see.) The firm is involved in a monster litigation, its star litigator (Tom Wilkinson) has apparently snapped, and the clients (Tilda Swinton is their lead counsel) are freaking out.
Clooney goes through the movie looking like a man who doesn't normally get enough sleep, only now he's going without for four days straight. That gorgeous suit and those piercing movie-star eyes can't hide the hints of red at their edges and the fact that he could use a shave and a shower. Clooney will probably pick up his second best-actor nomination for this, and so could Wilkinson as the lawyer at the end of his rope.
Sydney Pollack plays the senior partner in Clayton's firm, but Pollack also seems to be Gilroy's directorial model. This film is an intimate, winter-bound thriller shot in 2.35 wide-screen that resembles Pollack's mid-70s films. If you want a role model for a talky thriller, Three Days Of The Condor isn't a bad choice.
Michael Clayton has the standard lawyer movie arc - amoral lawyer finds his soul when threatened - but it doesn't have that slick Grisham feel. Gilroy envisions the law as a thing suspended over a seething pit of disorder, and then he worries that these particular characters are in charge of the system that's supposed to be protecting us. It's a kinder view than he had in his script for The Devil's Advocate, where Satan ran the legal system.