By Marc S. Sanders
The corporate world can be murder sometimes. Just ask a well known “fixer” like Michael Clayton.
George Clooney plays the title role that’ll leave your head spinning while watching the film, and thereafter keep you thinking about how frighteningly true much of what you’ve seen, in this fictional account from master writer Tony Gilroy, could potentially be all too real.
Michael Clayton is a lawyer who does not practice law but rather “fixes” sticky situations for his law firm. When the attorneys of the firm don’t have enough imagination to swindle their client from bearing responsibility or surrendering to guilt, they turn to Michael. Michael will know what to do. Ironically, Gilroy’s script (which is also his directorial debut) will have you believe that Clayton is at a career midlife crisis moment where he understands that nothing really can be fixed or simply swept under the rug. Not even money can buy any of us out of a guilty situation when there’s nothing to work with but the black and white facts of actual guilt. Early on in the film, Michael explains to an aggravated high-priced client that there’s no getting out of the fact that a late-night hit and run is nothing else but a late-night hit and run. Can’t undent a car. Can’t bring a bicyclist back to life. Can’t fix what is permanently broken.
Moving on to the main storyline will demonstrate the same ideal. If knowing admission of guilt and wrongdoing is documented on paper in plain English, then there’s no getting around this. Moreover, there’s no getting around the fact that one of the best lawyers in Michael’s firm, played expertly by Tom Wilkinson, is consciously arrested in his own guilt of ethics violation. To be considered one of the greatest lawyers in the country, would you factor in how to squeak out a win at no costs? Would it be when you can accept that your own client is guilty of wrongdoing and help them from that point? I don’t know. I’m not a lawyer. The point is that Tony Gilroy implies that Wilkinson’s character, Arthur Eden, was once considered among his peers in high esteem in order to earn the reputation he has. Then another way when perhaps that reputation was based on actions not so honorable. As Arthur struggles with this conundrum, maybe it’s only telling that his wealthy corporate client, an environmental weed killer manufacturer and his law firm colleagues easily think it’s nothing like that. Arthur must be literally losing his mind. It’s the only explanation. He’d have to be crazy to literally strip his clothes off in the middle of a witness deposition, and later run after the witness in a freezing cold parking lot, while stark naked.
The pawn of the corporate client is represented by a shark named Karen Crowder (a brilliant Tilda Swinton, putting on the American Ivy League grad persona). Karen is only insecure in how capable she’s actually considered when behind her closed doors. She nervously practices what she will say at presentations for the corporation or interviews that hold her client in the highest regard. She’s also desperate to maintain a calm and unpanicked appearance of this firm who clearly caused the death of many people that were exposed to their product. Karen will make certain this knowledge never sees the light of day. Karen talks to her mirror while stuttering over her lines. By the way, if Karen was so confident in what her corporate client stands for, then would she even have a stutter to begin with? This is where Tilda Swinton is great with Gilroy’s script. What she knows would be the death of her career. Then again, this is her career we are talking about here.
Tony Gilroy’s script is deliberately muddied in its first act. Random scenes that carry no relevance to one another occur. Michael sits at an underground poker table. Arthur spews off endless speeches that give a voice to madness. An army of lawyers led by a shrewd Sydney Pollack are up late at night sifting through piles and piles of documents. Karen talks to herself while smoothing out the wrinkles of her suit while getting dressed in the morning. Then a car explodes, and the movie sends us back in time to four days prior. This might seem frustrating on a first viewing, but I urge anyone interested in seeing the film to be patient. Gilroy demonstrates that if crime truly occurs within the offices of corporate high-rise buildings, then it’s not going to be anything but complex. It’s only when it is gradually simplified like a math equation, do we see how justifiable the desperation of these crimes really are. Murder and attempted murders and violations of law and ethics are committed in the film Michael Clayton, and yet no one is carrying a gun.
This film boasts a brilliant cast ready for complicated characters. Clooney is far from his charming other characters that evoke cuteness and handsome tuxedo clad appearances. He’s a tired professional soul, exhausted on the heavy lifting he does for his firm and their apathetic clients. He’s failed at his dream of running a New York City restaurant with his recovering alcoholic brother and he’s mounted in debt to loan sharks. Wilkinson is old and past the age of winning at all costs. He can’t sleep with the contributions he’s lent to criminals he’s legally served and rescued on paper. Swinton is the younger one of the trio with a massively rich and successful future ahead of her, while holding on to the same mentality of what Clooney and Wilkinson’s characters once had. The only issue is that maybe she’s taking a few too many steps way too far.
Tony Gilroy has written brilliantly faulty characters who must function with strength, but are weakened by their lack in morale or inability to recover from never having morale, and the actors he’s directed in this film deliver the message sensationally.
Michael Clayton is a smart film, and Michael Clayton is a great, great film.