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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

With Tom Wilkinson, would you get a time bomb or a warm hug?

Tom Wilkinson in “Michael Clayton.” (X photo/Clayton Productions)

By Alissa Wilkinson

It takes 27 minutes for Tom Wilkinson to actually show up in “Michael Clayton,” but his specter haunts every second.

The movie opens with his voice on a recording, pleading in familiar terms with “Michael” — we find out later he’s a fixer at the law firm where Wilkinson’s character is a partner. “I’m begging you, Michael, I’m begging you, try to make believe this is not just madness, because this is not just madness,” the voice pleads, pitch modulating and then oscillating through steadiness to vexation. He launches into a story about leaving a building to find himself coated in “amniotic, embryonic fluid,” then coming to a “stunning moment of clarity” about his work as a litigator who’s poured years of his life into, well, we don’t know yet, but it must be bad.

Tony Gilroy’s screenplay gives Wilkinson a lot to work with, but it’s his performance that grabs you by the throat, all the more gripping because we don’t really know what’s going on. Who is this man? Is he aware of what he’s saying, or have his marbles gone skittering across the room and into every corner? Is anything he says true, and if it is, does he know it? Those questions hover over the movie, the tension stretching drum-tight before Wilkinson even appears. George Clooney is the star of “Michael Clayton,” but its beating heart lies with Wilkinson, this imploding man on the phone.

Wilkinson (no relation, although publicists used to ask me), who died Saturday at 75, is one of those actors everyone knows even if they can’t quite place him.

He is the guy from “The Full Monty,” from “Batman Begins,” from “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol.” He did everything from “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” to “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and channeled historical figures including Joseph P. Kennedy (in “The Kennedys”), Lyndon B. Johnson (in “Selma”) and Benjamin Franklin (in “John Adams”). He played a lot of priests and a lot of soldiers and a lot of men from history, but he never quite managed to be pigeonholed as anyone in particular.

Wilkinson worked a lot, with multiple film, TV and stage credits most years since the early 1980s, in part because he usually didn’t play the lead. Instead, he was the man you brought in to fill a role with gravitas and a spark of peril, someone who would never simply say lines but make everything suddenly significant. What’s so fascinating about Wilkinson’s career, the kinds of characters he chose to portray, is their capacity for vulnerability and unpredictability. When he walked on screen, you were not quite sure whether this guy was going to be trustworthy or explosive.

The instruments Wilkinson had to work with — his look, his stature, his voice — weren’t particularly remarkable on their own. His face, which began to verge on the cherubic as he aged, was that of an ordinary Englishman, someone you’d bump into in a pub. His voice wasn’t particularly rumbly or low-pitched, and although he stood much taller than many men he acted with, you’d never stare as he walked down the street. Wilkinson looked, in essence, like someone’s granddad, a man who would slip you a cough drop midmeeting and wink.

Yet, his roles I remember most involved an element of danger so thoroughly fused into that exterior that I spent the whole movie wondering whether this guy was a warm hug or a time bomb. In Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” Wilkinson has a minor role as the doctor overseeing the memory-erasing procedure that Jim Carrey’s lovelorn Joel desperately seeks. Kirsten Dunst plays Mary, the much-younger assistant who falls in love with the doctor. When he tries to explain that the two of them have a history already, there’s equal parts patheticness and pathos in his performance. Is he predator, prey or helplessly uncertain how his own work really affects people? He’s not sure, and neither are we.

Or there’s the bereaved father in Todd Field’s “In the Bedroom,” a quiet, upstanding Maine father who is being eaten alive by his need to avenge the death of his son at the hands of his son’s girlfriend’s ex-husband. The final half-hour features Wilkinson at his most volatile, a deadpan expression on his face and a pistol in his hand. What’s in his heart is wholly inscrutable not just to the man at the other end of the gun, but to the audience, too. He could go off at any minute — or not at all.

The greatest encapsulation of this ability, however, still lies in “Michael Clayton,” with the role of attorney Arthur Edens (for which he was Oscar-nominated) perfectly tuned for Wilkinson’s abilities. When his monologue ends, we’re pretty sure the man on the phone needs immediate psychiatric help. But he’s gone, suddenly, and when he pops up again, that assumption gets murky. Maybe this guy really has had a blinding moment of insight, a sudden attack of moral clarity. Or maybe not? Edens, it emerges, has bipolar disorder and is typically medicated, and Wilkinson plays this as a man whose mind keeps slipping sideways inside his skull.

The effect on the audience is absolutely electric. In one scene, Edens knocks on a window to say hello to Clayton, a sweet smile on his face — surely this guy just needs a nap. In another, just after he seemed moderately lucid, he’s curled in bed, all but rocking back and forth as he talks to a child on the phone about the kid’s favorite fantasy book, seeming desperate to understand. Other people don’t know what to do with him either; a plaintiff seems to harbor both affection for and fear of him, and we get it. He seems equally likely to fly off the handle or offer a cup of tea. “You are a manic depressive,” Clayton says to him, by way of dismissing what seems like an attack of conscience not befitting a legendary litigator. “I am Shiva, the god of death,” Wilkinson replies, no histrionics, just a flat statement of fact. It makes your toes curl.

The most chilling scene in “Michael Clayton” comes straight out of the blue, a perfect showcase for Wilkinson’s ability to ride the edge. Clayton is driving the streets of Manhattan to find Edens, who has gone missing. He spots him walking down an alleyway with a comically giant bag of baguettes, and Edens, delighted to see him, offers him one. His face is childlike and open, vulnerable and generous. We’re almost afraid this man will get mugged for his bread.

Then Clooney starts talking about committing Edens to an institution, and suddenly a glint appears in Wilkinson’s eye. “Michael,” he says, in a voice that sounds very different from the one on the recording, “I have great affection for you, and you lead a very rich and interesting life.” This does not seem like a compliment. “But you’re a bag man, not an attorney,” he continues, in a tone of perfect lucidity. Suddenly we’re seeing Edens, the courtroom killer, exactly the lawyer you’d choose to defend a giant corporation in a multibillion-dollar class action suit. He is about to rip out Clayton’s guts.

Calmly, Edens goes on to explain why Clayton’s approach to getting Edens into an institution — the better to control the situation — is completely wrongheaded, given the laws about these things in New York. Everything he has done is a mistake, and Clayton knows it because Edens knows it.

“Well, good luck and God bless,” he concludes. “But I’ll tell you this: the last place you want to see me is in court.” And we, at least for that moment, believe him.

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