We’re used to seeing George Clooney project buoyancy. Even when he’s not pulling off Las Vegas casino capers, even in more serious films (The Good German, for example), he seems like someone who believes in happy endings. It’s an old-fashioned sort of quality (I mean that in a good way), and it’s reassuring.
None of that buoyancy can be seen in Michael Clayton, though. The movie is unsettling in large part because Clooney himself seems so unsettled. From the very beginning of the film, he exudes demoralized, despairing self-loathing—which I might have taken more in stride coming from another actor, but which rattled me coming from Clooney. Clayton reminded me of how Alfred Hitchcock used to cast James Stewart as his (anti-)hero: the discomfort of seeing all-American Jimmy descend into neuroses and corruption and ugliness made the movies that much more troubling. By this, I mean no disrespect to either Clooney or Stewart. Both are to be admired for their ability to subvert their movie star personas in service to a darker work. In fact, Michael Clayton is a perfect example of that.