Tilda Swinton fixes a staid ‘Michael Clayton’

About three-quarters of the way into Michael Clayton, as Tilda Swinton marches down a city street — the lone woman in a pack of well-dressed businessmen — my boyfriend turned to me and said, “What a gangsta.” (Indeed, “gang-stah.”)

Thug, hooligan, or mobster her character, Karen Crowder, may not be, but that gangsta synonym hits it just about right on the nose. Crowder could have been played by just about anyone, her part is so minuscule, her interior so obscure. Michael Clayton is a singular-character-driven film, after all. But points to first-time director Tony Gilroy, who, like Ben Affleck for his debut, Gone Baby Gone, cast even secondary characters much more talented than himself. (Gilroy is the screenwriter of such enchanting fare as The Cutting Edge, Armageddon `someday we’ll find it, the Affleck Connection`, The Devil’s Advocate, and fine, the Bourne movies, which are, on the whole, good.)

Though slightly draggy in the middle, Michael Clayton is good, too. George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack, and Swinton — not exactly the chopped liver of the film world — bring the required tension to a somewhat dull script. (And the parade of stars doesn’t end there, folks! Clooney and Pollack join directors Anthony Minghella and Steven Soderbergh as producers.)

Clooney plays a less-familiar role in Clayton, devoid of the smoldering sexiness of Danny Ocean or ER’s Doug Ross. Here, as the titular character, he’s a down-and-out divorcée, gambling addict, failed restaurateur, and “fixer” for a thriving, behemoth law firm. In other words, an overall sad sack. Not an individual a sane person would care to bed. He exudes “hate de vive,” my notes say. (Plus the eyeliner is pretty obvious. And how many layers of shoulder pads does one man need?)

The sadsackery is kicked up a notch when Clayton’s friend, brilliant attorney Arthur Edens (Wilkinson) drops his chemical-balancing meds and puts their mutual firm’s upper-hand status in a major class-action lawsuit in jeopardy. Unsurprisingly, it’s on Clayton to set things right.

Wilkinson’s ratty voice accompanies the film’s first montage. It’s difficult to follow both his stream-of-consciousness voiceover confession and the establishing images (I write, feeling about 90), but the idea is clear enough: He’s a semi-nutter whose conscience has perked up with wealth-induced hibernation. You can only defend the poisoners of small-time farmers for so long, I suppose, and then your ethics’ll get to you.

Swinton’s Crowder is a higher-up in the toxin-peddling corporation that hired Edens’ defense services, one who practices everything she plans to say before a mirror (her rehearsals are crosscut with “actual” interviews — some of the better editing on the part John Gilroy, Tony’s brother). Swinton lends a physical reality to the character, and, though Karen is underdeveloped, she manages to round her out with a kind of pregnant vagueness. Why is she willing to go to such lengths to hush Edens? You will find a million satisfyingly plausible, entirely unsaid reasons based on Swinton’s performance. What a gangsta. •


Michael Clayton
Dir. & writ. Tony Gilroy; feat. George Clooney, Sydney
Pollack, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton (R)

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