''I don't want to sit here and lard it up,'' writer-director Tony Gilroy says in his commentary on Michael Clayton, referring to some filmmakers' habit of heaping praise on their movie's stars. But even if he did fawn, I'd give the guy a pass. Because the performances are fantastic and because Gilroy (who co-wrote the Bourne trilogy) managed to deliver such a smart, gripping thriller his very first time in the director's chair.
George Clooney stars as the title character, an attorney in an elite law firm who cleans up clients' messes. When the firm's star litigator (Tom Wilkinson, in a perfect balance of brilliant and bonkers) goes off his meds and threatens to blow the whistle on the agrochemical company he's been defending, Clayton starts questioning his own rusty moral compass. Clooney plays him with an emotional raggedness that we seldom see in the suave leading man a trait Gilroy wisely knew to mine. ''I chased George for three years,'' the director notes. ''He was willing to be sad, weak, and lost.'' The same might be said about Tilda Swinton, who, as the evil company's twitchy in-house counsel, provides a chilling portrait of corporate greed stomping out the human soul.
The special features include three deleted scenes and the engaging commentary track, in which Gilroy ''geeks out'' with his editor brother, John. Passionate students of 1970s filmmaking, they gleefully point out references to Klute, The Parallax View, and Network. Those movies would be proud to have inspired Michael Clayton. A