Usually when George Clooney shows up in a film, you get to see that smile. That mile wide, slightly mischievous grin is one of the chief reasons he’s such a charismatic onscreen presence, but in Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton it’s nowhere to be found. This allows other aspects of his personality to come forward in playing the stressed out, introspective titular law firm fixer in what might be his best performance so far in a brilliant drama. His face is drawn and worried, his wide eyes taking in the ruthless corporate environment around him with taciturn angst and survival instinct of a cornered jungle cat. Michael has every reason to be worried not only in a general profession like this but also because of recent events. One of the firm’s top lawyers (Tom Wilkinson) is having a royal mental breakdown whilst in the thick of a high profile class action lawsuit putting billions against a chemical giant who are almost certainly guilty of what they’re being accused of. This is not good, not good at all and the the firm’s most senior partner (Sydney Pollack, so serious he’s scary) throws everything he’s got at the wall to remedy the situation, including Michael. Clooney plays the man almost as a guy who has chosen the wrong profession; to be a fixer like that I feel like you’d need a certain sort of cold detachment and near sociopathic level of apathy when dealing with such moral quagmires, but Michael is a man who, despite obvious efforts to stay one step removed, let’s his humanity seep through with every sympathetic glance and wounded exchange. Perhaps it’s Clooney’s inherent affability or a deliberate character choice, but in any case the contradictory portrayal works wonders and makes for such a fascinating protagonist. Wilkinson isn’t capable of giving a bad performance even in the worst films, his darkly comic unravel from learned man of law to unhinged mad scholar is a beautifully tragic arc and one of the tethers holding Michael in the swirling gale of tricky decisions and do-or-die chess moves he must navigate. Another is icy, robotic Tilda Swinton as a shady lawyer hired by Big Chemical to try and patch up things on their end. She unravels too, albeit in a less theatrical way than Wilkinson, but the noiseless, implosive confrontation she has with Michael in the third act is enough to knock anyone flat and stands as my favourite scene of the film. Michael is a family man with a young son who dreams of escaping this cutthroat netherworld and starting up a restaurant, a goal that the audience sees glowing on the horizon as clearly as he does thanks to the empathy inspiring performance. After all is said and done we witness some of the most simply unique end credits out there on a hypnotic car ride where both Michael and the viewers decompress and meditate on everything before, it’s a brilliant bit of the pacing puzzle here. This isn’t really a political thriller and can’t very well be called courtroom drama either, really it’s own thing. I suppose the closest is character study, but even that doesn’t provide a legible menu option for the meal to follow. Unique in atmosphere and character interaction, crisply written and directed by Gilroy, and acted to the absolute nines by Clooney without ever showboating or chewing scenery. Great film.