The best example of how well made a film Michael Clayton is may just be that it’s great in spite of a pretty generic and conventional plot. Here’s the pitch: George Clooney plays a lawyer caught in the middle of a multi-billion dollar lawsuit leveled against an Evil Corporation by innocent farmers claiming their product has slowly poisoned them, and he gets his hands on explosive evidence that the Evil Corporation, being evil, will stop at nothing to suppress.
It sounds like Erin Brokovich minus the cleavage, or like the work of John Grisham or one of his many imitators. But longtime screenwriter Tony Gilroy, making his directorial debut here (apparently on the strength of the success of his Bourne screenplays), fleshes that skeletal synopsis out in interesting ways, giving it nuance and character, and he tells the story in such a way that it’s remarkably gripping. Not to mention quite beautiful. It was such an immersive experience, that it wasn’t until I sat down to start sorting out my thoughts on it that I began to realize how generic it actually is.
Clooney’s Michael Clayton, who lends his name for use in the incredibly generic title, is a fixer for “a vast and powerful law firm” in New York City. The characters themselves all disagree and/or play coy about what a “fixer” actually does—one refers to Clayton as a miracle worker, another a bagman, while he prefers janitor—but in essence, he helps problems go away, for both the high-powered attorneys he works for and their even higher-powered clients.
We meet him in the hours between night and dawn, the time where most of the movie seems to actually occur (Even when it’s day time most of the actors give off a somnambulistic vibe, and cinematographer Robert Elswit helps lens a pre-dawn, dream sequence-esque look to almost every scene). Clayton’s been called in to help a problem go away, and, in one of the most dream-like sequences, he suddenly leaves his car to stand in a field with some horses, and his car explodes.
What the fuck?
We then flash back four days to see why someone might want to blow up such a handsome lawyer, and why Tilda Swinton is sweaty and crying in a law firm bathroom.
Tom Wilkinson plays one of the firm’s elder statesmen, a man who’s been working to defend that evil corporation U/North from a lawsuit for years, when he suddenly goes off his meds and goes all King Lear on everyone, playing the fool who might just be on to something. When he threatens to turn against the firm’s client, Clayton is called in to save the case, which means deciding between the right thing and the professional thing.
Gilroy slowly, gracefully unpacks backstories for the characters, with the gradual reveal of information adding up to histories and motivations. The portrait of Clayton that emerges isn’t necessarily a flattering one, but it is a fairly well-rounded and realistic (if incomplete) one, and he becomes something of a hero in his discovery that maybe there are things so shitty they shouldn’t be done, even when you’re being so well paid to do them.
Clooney’s Old Hollywood looks and hard to tune down movie star charm serve him well here, bubbling up to help reveal a guy who spends much of his time buying people off and bullshitting his way through life.
Less attention is lavished on the other players, but they give extraordinary performances—particularly Wilkinson, who resists the temptation to over-play a crazy man, and Swinton, who adds layers of vulnerability and desperation to an otherwise stock villain’s role.
Combined with Gilroy’s icy cool aesthetic, such sharp performances help elevate a formulaic legal thriller to such heights that it’s no longer recognizable as such, becoming a tense character study embedded in an instense moralistic drama.