Michael Clayton is about that small, powerful class of individuals who run civilization from high above. This elite social order is well versed in the euphemistic language of business warfare and inhabits a rarefied world that’s both cutthroat and amoral but disguised behind a veneer of corporate respectability. The film focuses primarily on the legal operatives that allow this commercial network to function, unrestrained by silly concepts like the rule of law. These are people who exhibit an almost freakish level of commitment to their trade, largely at the expense of a private life. It’s no surprise that all of the most prominent players in Michael Clayton carry with them immense emotional baggage, the eponymous lawyer being no exception.
Michael Clayton is the in-house “fixer” for a powerful New York-based corporate law firm called Kenner, Bach and Ledeen. He cleans up the messes the firm and its clients get themselves into, and does it quietly and efficiently. A shrewd, cool-headed operator with an encyclopedic grasp of the law and its enforcement, his job isn’t really political chicanery, but rather simple risk analysis and damage control. “I’m not a miracle worker. I’m a janitor,” he explains. However, for someone so good at cleaning up other people’s messes, he seems to have great difficulty dealing with his own: he’s 80 grand in debt and his personal life is in shambles.
Just when all of the pressures in Michael’s life are building up to calamitous climax, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), one of the firm’s brightest attorneys, goes bonkers and strips naked in a deposition room in Milwaukee. A video of the incident reveals the man ranting incoherently about corporate malfeasance while ripping off his clothes before marching into the snowy parking lot. Michael is sent to Wisconsin to rein him in a task more difficult than expected. After a couple of psychotic episodes and delusional pronouncements (“I am Shiva, god of death”), Arthur flees back to New York, unsupervised and free to act as his deranged self pleases.
Arthur worked for six years as the head litigator in a multi-billion dollar lawsuit, defending the giant agrochemical firm U/North from accusations of criminal negligence. After all that time — and all those billable hours — Arthur snaps, presumably because of something related to A) a toxic weed-killer, B) a secret U/North memo, C) a guilty conscience or D) all of the above. None of the story’s many twists and turns are all that original, but, because they are executed with such an abundance of style, the movie never feels contrived. First-time director Tony Gilroy displays an impressive adeptness at creating and elevating the level of suspense, while never going overboard into the territory of absurdity. This is a story that, even though it probably shouldn’t, feels real. This isn’t a John Grisham rehash, the noble lawyer fighting to stave off the oppressive forces of corporate greed.
That all of the actors do top notch work helps the movie achieve this level of piercing realism. George Clooney basically plays himself, except that there’s an also edge to Michael Clayton that we haven’t seen much in past Clooney roles (the exception being his embattled CIA agent in Syriana). Clayton is certainly a charmer, but he’s also under enormous stress, trying to make sense of a rapidly escalating crisis. That he seems to, largely keep his cool is what separates him from Karen Crowder. Tom Wilkinson is electric as Arthur Edens, channeling Howard Beale (Google it) as he waxes philosophical with the fervor of a religious fanatic. His opening monologue, played over various shots of glittering black office buildings, empty lobbies and blinking telephones, sets the tone for the rest of the picture. And tone is really what sets this movie apart. Like it’s main character, this is a smart, cool, biting film that possesses all of the best qualities of a thriller.