George Clooney stars as Clayton, a former courtroom shark whose particular talents lands him a job as a "fixer" in a large law firm. His current assignment is to sift and spin the damage left by one of the firm's senior litigators (Tom Wilkinson) who, off his medication, decided to strip down and go dashing through the snow during a deposition in Milwaukee.
What's interesting about the movie is how much it manages to say without becoming overt. The legal case in question revolves around a large corporation that might have knowingly distributed a powerful carcinogen, but the film never becomes a message or an attack on big business.
Clayton is clearly a man struggling with debt, relationships, career and his own gambler's heart, but the film doesn't judge, nor does it offer easy solutions.
Instead, the film lays out the situations, hands the well-written characters over to highly skilled actors and allows the intrigues to unfold just as they might in the real world. There are no real heroes or villains, no moments of greatness or depravity. Instead, characters struggle with moral conundrums and the fickle nature of fate. They are allowed to be wise and foolish, unrepentant and forgiving.
Technically, Michael Clayton is an understated wonder. Never showy but always carefully composed, it uses framing, color and costume in very intentional, but almost invisible, ways.
Danger is communicated not through the quick-cuts and jittering hand-held shots that have become popular in contemporary cinema, but through sequences that linger and move smoothly through a situation, allowing the audience to experience and understand character, setting and situation before moving on.
The film only falters on the rare occasion when it seems to try to ape the 1970s cinema the filmmakers admire. Clearly a film capable of delivering on its own steam, it seems to occasionally cop out, opting to offer a quiet homage to the films that have come before.
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WHAT: Michael Clayton (Warner Home Video; $28.98)
OSCAR NOMINATIONS: Best picture, best actor (Mr. Clooney), best supporting actor (Tom Wilkinson), supporting actress (Tilda Swinton), director (Tony Gilroy), original screenplay and original score
THE VERDICT: **** out of *****