MICHAEL CLAYTON begins with a monologue by Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), a brilliant but unhinged litigator who has spent too much of his life defending the indefensible. In it, beautifully encapsulated, is the heart of the film, which is to say, that it’s only a madman who has the clarity of vision to do the right thing. To be exact, it’s a manic-depressive who has gone off his meds. The particulars are a lawsuit against UNorth, a corporation accused of knowingly poisoning the users of its product, and the titular fixer (George Clooney) of the law firm UNorth has hired to defend itself, who is called in to clean up the mess Edens has caused by suddenly, inexplicably, wanting to tell the truth about it all. The high-stakes, the way money makes every moral compromise a survival imperative, makes this a thriller of the most sophisticated type, playing the macrocosm of Clayton’s professional problems against the microcosm of the soul he thought he had conveniently compartmentalized.
It’s been a long time coming for Clayton. He’s a tired man who has come to terms with letting go of the ideals he had, the family he sacrificed, and the life he had all planned out for himself. What starts as just another job for the firm takes a turn for the moral, though. It’s a combination of being asked to fix a hit-and-run that deserves prosecution, bringing Edens to heel when the villains of the piece are so abundantly apparent, dealing with the personal financial disaster brought on by his drug-addled brother, and having to look his kid in the eye to explain his job are finally too much for him. That and the car that explodes a few seconds after he leaves it.
The kid, Henry (Austin Williams) is obsessed with a fantasy novel, and try as he might, he can’t really get his father interested in it. Clayton claims it’s because by the time he’s read the book, Henry will have moved on to something else, but perhaps, unconsciously, it’s because it cuts a little too close to home, role-playing in a fantasy world where friends and enemies are indistinguishable until it’s too late. It’s no coincidence that in a late-night call that Edens makes to Clayton, when Henry answers the phone instead, Edens is enthralled by the story, spending hours discussing the finer points with Henry. And there is the subtle unity writer/director Tony Gilroy has used. The subplots all neatly tie into the main story, and that story is smart and as slick as Clayton’s wheeling and dealing. There is not an extraneous moment, where money is power, and power is temporary at best, illusory at worst.
Clooney, who also produced, has never been better. It’s not the showy speeches, it’s the way this character changes almost imperceptibly through the course of the film. There are brief moments, such as when Clayton will just stand there for a heartbeat or two with a thousand-mile stare, as though taking stock, coming up short, and from the expression on his face being astonished that he is unable to process this professional and personal crisis the way he’s fixed things for everyone else. He’s also never done a better job of surrounding himself with the best talent available. Wilkinson, one of the best actors working in any medium, makes insanity seem reasonable, even when claiming that he is Shiva the God of Death. There is a desperate intensity to his born-again sense of justice that is palpably intelligent and unhinged at the same time. Tilda Swinton, as the in-house counsel for the agri-business being sued is nothing short of brilliant. Her character, brittle, amoral, and ruthless, practices the warm spontaneity she’ll need for a press conference in the bathroom mirror, and collapses in terror at uncertainty when things don’t go strictly according to script. Swinton gives the weakness that the character keeps to herself, the springboard for the steel that she projects to others, while still letting the pressure she’s under show with a voice that occasionally lapses into something almost childlike even while issuing orders that do more than violate professional ethics. The mouth is set in a profound dourness, but hard eyes dart ever so slightly, and the head pivots ever so slightly. The result is a character who is the most dangerous on screen, the most unpredictable, because the most desperate to beat the boys at their own game.
Gilroy has made this a film that is quiet on the surface. This is a milieu where shouting isn’t necessary with the powerful and their minions. He keeps the camera steady, unblinking, the colors somber, full of the sort of shadows, real and metaphorical, in which most of the machinations take place, as well as setting the mood of tension in a world where there are no permanent allies, only permanent interests.
MICHAEL CLAYTON doesn’t cover new ground when it comes to corporate greed, but that’s not the point. It homes in on the unexpected motives of the fellow travelers behind the greed and in doing so becomes an intelligent, profound, and uncompromising film about the basest and most noble instincts at play in humankind.