I've always thought it's a little weird that the movies and books about the legal system are the ones that get called "thrillers."
It's just a genre term, sure, but the movies that revolve around the case of GiantCo v. Screwed Customer are -- by nature -- usually far less thrilling than the ones that revolve around the guy in the mask with the chainsaw v. the carload of hapless victims, or the ones with the really big animals that are also against the hapless victims, or the ones with two rival gangs whose ongoing feud begins to catch hapless victims in the crossfire.
"Michael Clayton" is a thriller that lives up to its genre's hyperbolic name, but isn't afraid to take its time establishing itself with a lot of not-immediately-relevant scenes before coming round to its big problem: Tom Wilkinson, the head defense attorney for a $3 billion class action lawsuit, has gone off his meds and is starting to ask the kind of questions that could torpedo the entire case.
Law firm problem-fixer George Clooney is dispatched to straighten Wilkinson out and get the case back in order, but Wilkinson isn't interested in playing the game any longer. Under huge pressure from his own firm and Tilda Swinton, their client's lead counsel, Clooney may not be able to clean things up before more drastic measures have to be taken.
Ever since his post-"Batman and Robin" deal with the devil in which he traded his soul for unholy acting talent, Clooney's been pretty much lights out. The script gives him a lot to work with -- writer/director Tony Gilroy, who wrote the "Bourne" movies, strings together that kind of high-context dialogue where the best way to follow along is to accept that you're going to be confused but will probably pick it up later -- but Clooney's performance as a used-up cog is, like the movie itself, understated to the point where his few flashes of violent feeling stand out all the brighter.
Also, Swinton is either from an advanced species of theater-trained aliens or extremely talented, because with Big Bad Corporations where the company sleazebags will do anything to sweep their Terrible Secrets under the rug, you don't exactly expect said sleazebags to be interesting characters. Here, she probably (definitely) skipped a few business ethics lectures, but every time she gets in private and looks like the anxiety is about to make her puke so hard she'll cough up a rib, you can't help but remember she's human, too.
At times, though, it's tempting to think the movie's moral murkiness and deliberate, piece-by-piece revelation of its plot are just a bunch of cool tricks to disguise the fact the Big Bad Corporation is clearly in the wrong and just about everyone knows it even if they can't prove it. That's something that can't help but cast the people who support it as villains and the people who oppose it as heroes. Smartly, then, "Michael Clayton" spends almost too much time with Clooney's frustration and attempts to get out from a job he does well but can't be satisfied by.
That struggle helps deflate some of the film's self-importance. Gilroy's strong direction takes care of most of the rest, creating an atmosphere of impending dread drawn tight by ice-blooded pros taking care of business. The ending is a little too abrupt and tidy (though that's blurred by the end credits sequence), and at times it seems to be stretching for insight that isn't there, but "Michael Clayton's" that rare film that succeeds as a genre piece and something more, too.