Though he won a permanent spot in the hearts of 10-year-old girls everywhere by penning the early '90s tween romance favorite The Cutting Edge, screenwriter Tony Gilroy is best known as the scribe behind Matt Damon's Bourne franchise. With his directorial debut Michael Clayton Gilroy shifts his focus from international espionage to corporate duplicity and sinister legal machinations, but retains an emotional palette rich in grays and black. Like Damon in the Bourne movies, the film's protagonist, a high-powered legal clean-up man suffering from professional exhaustion and ennui, cuts himself off from his emotions and transforms himself into a hyper-efficient machine to keep from being destroyed by the darkness that surrounds him. In the title role, George Clooney tones down his movie star charisma and ebullience to play a man whose inner light was extinguished long ago, a victim of compromise, bad breaks, and lowered expectations.
After years of grudgingly accepting a poisonous status quo, Clooney's conscience is awoken when his high-powered law firm sends him upriver to rein in his brilliant but mercurial mentor Tom Wilkinson. The veteran lawyer's psychological meltdown threatens to destroy an important case and cost Clooney's employers serious scratch. Clooney tries to save Wilkinson from himself, his demons, and the legal wolves at his door, but it isn't long before he finds himself a target of the very company that has consumed his life.
In a heartbreaking, scene-stealing performance, Wilkinson plays his bipolar character's manic delirium as a heightened form of awareness, a life-affirming source of moral clarity in a cloudy and corrupt world. Tilda Swinton lends a disarming vulnerability to the film's unusually complex villain, a woman who learns the hard way that trying to make it in a man's world can be murder. In an accomplished directorial debut, Gilroy gives the film a shadowy, autumnal hue and combines image and sound in sometimes surprising and ingenious ways. After wading through a deep sea of moral ambiguity for two hours, the film concludes with a surprisingly slick ending that wouldn't feel out of place in a John Grisham novel. But Gilroy and his stellar cast trudge through an awful lot of darkness to get there.