Directed by Tony Gilroy
Michael Clayton is a sleek, cool thriller. It’s a story about spies and secret boardroom dealings and explosions. It’s a story immersed in feelings of paranoia and characters, namely George Clooney, who just stepped out of a magazine spread. It’s strangely reminiscent of those cool old 70’s films, the type of non-superhero action films not based on pre-existing property. It’s a nice, tight original story made grand by the characters involved, not by what’s at stake. The movie that comes to mind when I think of this one is 1975’s Three Days of the Condor in which our hero is an A-list star (Robert Redford) who realizes that the people he works for have turned against him. Strangely enough, the director of that movie, Sydney Pollack, is an actor in this one.
Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a law firm’s “fixer,” but he views himself more as a janitor. He’s the guy you go to in order to clean up a mess, and we observe this through a late night call to have him visit one of the firm’s most important clients, a man who just hit someone with his car. The man rants and raves while Clayton stands by oddly silent. He’s cool and collected, made more suave and supreme by this other man’s hysteria.
In a pretty awesome scene, Clayton explains who he is and what he does. It doesn’t matter so much what Clayton’s role is here, but rather what we can learn about his character. He’s the man, and soon he will watch his car explode.
Now, I enjoy this film, it’s interestingly complex and suspenseful, but it also does that thing where it starts with the end. After Clayton’s car blows up, we’re given a title card that says “four weeks earlier.”
So this sets up that someone is after our hero, and we must figure out why. I kind of think this is an unnecessary glimpse into the future. While it does set up the scene for when we eventually return there near the end of the movie, in exciting fashion, I don’t believe it adds much to the situation at the start. Though the point is to put us on the lookout, the paranoia is unrelated to the story. It’s more of a spin to promise us that the story will be worth it.
We learn early on that Michael Clayton, despite his good looks and charm, is falling apart. He’s $75,000 in debt because of a restaurant venture that went south due to his brother’s drug habit. At the beginning of the movie he is involved in a card game in hopes of winning back some of that money. This position of his doesn’t have much to do with the movie’s plot, but it helps emphasize the dire tone of the movie. Just about every character we meet seems to be on their last life.
Clayton is brought in to straighten out a litigator, Arthur (Tom Wilkenson), who has stopped taking his meds and had a mental breakdown. Arthur explains that they are the bad guys, the ones defending a company (U-North) that has caused the deaths of hundreds due to a known product defect. Clayton tells him that they’ve both known this all along, but Arthur has reached his breaking point. He wants to turn on U-North.
At the same time, Karen (Tilda Swinton), U-North’s general counsel, realizes that Arthur is a problem that needs to be dealt with. She uses two hitmen, whom the company has held on retainer, to bug Arthur’s phone, and soon she learns that he has been building a case against the company. Later the hitmen kill Arthur and stage his death as a very believable suicide.
Just about everyone buys the authenticity of the suicide, but soon Michael Clayton, the only man who tried to help Arthur following his mental breakdown, begins to follow the bread crumbs of Arthur’s investigation. Despite already knowing that U-North was up to some shady dealings, he soon has proof.
Clayton takes this proof to his boss, but before he can say anything, his boss offers him a new contract and $80,000 to cover his debt. The boss (Sydney Pollack) also makes it clear that the firm knows he might have dug up dirt on them, so the contract is a way of buying back his loyalty. Clayton also learns that the firm does indeed know about U-North’s cover up regarding their deadly product defects.
At this point, the hitmen hired by U-North have been following Clayton and rigged a bomb to his car. They have to hurry when he returns to his car sooner than expected, and because of this they lose contact with him, and the bomb detonates while he’s out of the car.
With this attempted murder in mind, Clayton understands that Arthur’s death was most definitely murder. He goes to Karen and gets her to confess to U-North’s crimes by pretending to blackmail her.
So Michael Clayton is a nice film with an ending we want because it gives the anti-hero the heroic end and the villain their comeuppance. But this movie can also be slightly frustrating. It’s almost too oblique, but I guess that depends on taste. Michael Clayton doesn’t spell anything out, instead making you watch carefully in order to keep up.
All the clues are there, but nothing is clear on the surface, partially because this is a character study meant to look like a plot-driven action movie. Not much happens outside of what Michael Clayton does, and when you zoom out, the plot is rather thin.
Clayton is brought in to deal with a rogue employee, he listens to him, fails to save him, then follows up that man’s investigation, is nearly killed for it, then turns on the people who originally hired him and who killed his friend. That’s almost just a short story.
So Michael Clayton thrives because it’s stylish and tense. It’s moody and because of the strange detours from the plot (including a focus on a Lord of the Rings type of young adult series of books called “Realm and Conquest”), it feels like it’s saying much more beyond the plot, a slightly sensational B-picture kind of storyline.
There have been stories about corporate corruption and people benefitting on the suffering of others, but our way into this heightened world is through a quiet, somber man. Michael Clayton wouldn’t be the same as seen through the eyes of another. This character, on the surface, would seem to be the most morally compromised of all, considering he’s a fixer for a law firm that often sides with the bad guy, but by the end he either rediscovers or finds a conscience.
Michael Clayton is a complex hero, one with two very different lives that never intersect. He’s not just a fixer, working late into the night, he’s also a father with a loving relationship to his son. In other movies, the son might become a sort of damsel in distress figure, someone who needs saving by the end and whose precarious fate shows how the hero’s muddied activities have infected his real life.
Instead there is a clear separation between these two lives. Again, this isn’t a plot-driven movie where every card is set up to be knocked down in the end. It’s a character study, and everything set up is just another clue into who Michael Clayton is.
I suppose the beginning of the film sets up a dramatic question that makes us assess Clayton’s morality. He’s a guy who dutifully does a job and seems intent on following the law. Though meant to help out a man who just hit a pedestrian, he tells the man that the police will be onto him and there is no imminent obstruction of justice. Michael Clayton tells it how it is. He’s not a fixer, he’s a janitor, and there’s no crime in that is there?
Then we see him take the time to walk up to a bunch of horses, implying some kind of innocence at his core, and when his car blows up, well it just raises a bunch of questions, including whether or not he had this coming.
So I guess the story is a test of Michael Clayton’s morality. It ends with him doing the right thing, turning down an apparent opportunity to cash the hell out in favor of going to the police. The final shot shows him in a cab, perhaps struggling with his conscience before there is the slightest hint of a smile, a soul at rest, when we cut to black.
That’s my takeaway, at least. Michael Clayton is like some kind of religious figure, a modern day saint, like those stories you may have heard about someone deep in the throws of a classically sinful life before they see the light. St. Ignatius, for example.
Or maybe I completely missed the point, but this is what I got out of it.
Up Next: Anatomy of a Murder (1959), Field of Dreams (1989), Duck Soup (1933)