It will no doubt be said time and again of Michael Clayton: best John Grisham adaptation ever. Only it didn't spring from Grisham's billion-dollar mind, no matter how much it feels that way. No, it sprang from the mind of Tony Gilroy, who wrote the ice-skating melodrama The Cutting Edge and the Jason Bourne series.
Gilroy, this time as a director, lopes in the opposite direction with the methodical Michael Clayton, which stars George Clooney as the fixer in a law office where attorneys like to bend laws till they break. The story is relatively easy to follow: It's Erin Brockovich sans the feel-good -- yet another story about the Big Bad Corporation doing anything and everything to crush the little people, in this case the little people it's poisoning.
For six years, an agrochemical company called U/North has been fighting a class-action suit in which the plaintiffs allege that its fertilizer is lethal. A brilliant litigator named Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) has been defending U/North -- only Arthur's but a cracked shell of his former brilliant self.
Arthur, who disappeared after running naked from a deposition, is in possession of a single document that threatens to undermine U/North's entire case. His firm's partners -- among them director Sydney Pollack, once more brilliantly cast as a devious, deadpan sonofabitch -- want Arthur found, the potential damage contained. U/North's in-house counsel (Tilda Swinton) would like Arthur muzzled -- by any means necessary, she tells the buttoned-up goon squad that U/North employs for emergencies like this.
Caught between them is the hollow man himself, in need of redemption -- or at least a shower and a shave. Michael may have been hot shit years ago, but now he's broke and alone, barely a father to the 10-year-old son he lost in the divorce. He's a degenerate gambler. And he's not even a good fixer anymore: When first we see Clayton, he's stumbling around a spoiled suburbanite's kitchen, up to his ass in a run-of-the-mill drunk-driving case he would easily have made vanish with his magic wand, once upon a long, long time ago.
It will take the audience a while to realize that the movie's earliest scenes are actually flash-forwards, but Gilroy's not using the commonplace device as some kind of a lookie-there-Ma trick. Rather than taking the audience out of the film (as was the case in 21 Grams, where the gimmick kept drawing our attention away from the story), the tactic here sucks us further in -- to the point where an event seen and absorbed early on can still surprise the second time around.
It would seem an impossible trick, turning the conventional "legal thriller" into something deeply felt. But Gilroy's up to the challenge: Michael Clayton has all the makings of something utterly familiar and ordinary, but it argues its case as anything but.