Michael Clayton

In theaters.

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.

Clooney plays the titular character, a “fixer” for a large legal firm. His usual tasks seem to involve making clients’ shoplifting and DUI arrests go away, but at the movie’s outset, he’s called in for something more serious. Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), one of his firm’s star litigators, has had a breakdown while handling an agrichemical giant’s defense against a class-action lawsuit. Edens, a manic-depressive, has gone off his meds; Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the corporation’s in-house counsel, is panicking; and Clayton, despondent over a number of personal issues, is close to a breakdown himself.

The movie has some of the elements of a thriller, but it’s more of a character study, a three-pronged look at individuals who have sold their souls to purchase lives they don’t enjoy and become people they don’t respect. It isn’t a story of temptation: Edens and Crowder and Clayton made their choices long ago, and writer-director Tony Gilroy doesn’t hold out much hope of true atonement for any of them. Their hands are already too stained to ever be fully clean again.

That’s a bleak worldview, but the three central performances keep darkness from overwhelming the movie. Wilkinson’s Edens is fascinating. We meet the character after he already has descended into mania, but we still can catch glimpses of his sharp legal mind, even through the fog of his ravings. The riveting thing about the performance is the suggestion that Edens knows he should be taking his pills. He knows he’s sliding into madness. But in his madness, he can reclaim his moral compass, and he’s unwilling to sacrifice that compass for sanity.

Swinton takes a tired, even offensive cliché—the icy, sexless, skittish careerwoman—and fleshes it out, creating a truly memorable, compellingly banal portrait of evil. Instead of treating Crowder with sympathy, Swinton treats her with scorn, and that works surprisingly well. As embodied by Swinton, Crowder isn’t a monster but an understandable human being, however pitiful and contemptible.

Wilkinson and Swinton are wonderful, but the movie belongs to Clooney, who manages to make gloomy world-weariness charismatic. The case isn’t particularly interesting (it’s obvious from the start that the agrichemical corporation has been weighing its cost-benefit analyses without regard for human life), but watching Clayton piece everything together—and then struggle with what to do—is gripping.

Gilroy gives him smart, keenly direct dialogue, but some of Clooney’s best moments are wordless. In the movie’s final scene, Gilroy simply holds the camera on Clooney’s face for several minutes as Clayton struggles to process what has just happened. It’s an admirably ambiguous conclusion. Neither Gilroy nor Clooney tells us what to feel, leaving us not with easy answers but with Clayton’s intelligence and pain—the vivid tumult of emotion playing across his conflicted face.

That scene haunts me. Clearly Clooney doesn’t need lighthearted banter to be an old-fashioned movie star—and again, I mean that in the very best sense of the word.