MOVIE REVIEW- Legal evil: A thriller with a heart and brain

Can enlightenment catch on? It does, only slowly, in movies like The Insider, Erin Brockovich, and now Michael Clayton, one of the best legal thrillers that doesn't involve John Grisham.

It's not exactly like dominoes, but when Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), senior litigating partner of powerful New York law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, freaks out over the evilness of a case they're defending, he just might pass the goodness virus on to someone before he's "brought under control."

Michael Clayton opens with Edens, who's been working on the case for six years, explaining why, other than failing to take his bipolar meds, he stripped naked during a deposition and chased a plaintiff into the parking lot.

At issue is a $3 billion class action lawsuit against U/North, a company that manufactures, among other things, a carcinogenic pesticide that's been making people sick. Edens' conversion experience in a moment of unmedicated clarity was caused by an internal memo indicating the company had long been aware of the defoliant's danger.

Since it was in the discovery papers furnished by the plaintiff, how anyone thinks silencing Edens will keep it out of court is one of the loopholes in director Tony Gilroy's largely airtight screenplay. (The other involves the ending, so it can't be discussed here.)

Michael Clayton (George Clooney), a former prosecutor, is the law firm's "fixer," a "miracle worker." He should be well compensated, but he's managed to gamble it all away, including a bad investment in a restaurant with his alcoholic brother, Timmy (David Lansbury).

The film opens with Edens' meltdown, then gives an example of the kind of sleazy work Michael does for the firm. While lawyers, led by Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), hammer out a settlement proposal for the U/North case, up in Westchester, Michael Clayton's car blows up. He's not in it at the time, so we don't have that kind of cliffhanger over our heads as the story goes back four days to review what's going on.

Michael has a young son, Henry (Austin Williams), who's excited about a fantasy novel, Realm + Conquest. He can't interest his dad in it, but Edens, in his agitated state, is fascinated by the book's simplistic ideas of justice, good, and evil.

At U/North Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) has recently been promoted to chief in-house counsel, and she's trying to impress her boss, Don Jeffries (Ken Howard). Everybody in this story is under extra pressure. Kenner, Bach & Ledeen is negotiating a merger with a British firm and needs to look good. Clayton owes money he doesn't have, and Edens, hiding out in New York, has a price on his head.

While Michael Clayton is discovering he has a conscience, most of the people around him are realizing they don't. It creates considerable dramatic tension and gives the audience a rooting interest in the hero, even if they may leave the theater and go back to robbing pension funds or selling flawed merchandise.

The ending is satisfying, but if you want to understand it, you may have to hire a lawyer to explain it to you.

Michael Clayton is an excellent directorial debut for Gilroy, whose screenwriting resumé includes all three Bourne films and a number of less worthy projects. This is a thriller with a heart and a brain.