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With Tom Wilkinson, Would You Get a Time Bomb or a Warm Hug?

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, though publicists used to ask me), who died on 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 onscreen, you were not quite sure whether this guy was going to be trustworthy or explosive.

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