George Clooney as Michael Clayton
Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens
Tilda Swinton as Karen Crowder
Sydney Pollack as Marty Bach
Sean Cullen as Gene Clayton
Michael O’Keefe as Barry Grissom
Ken Howard as Don Jefferies
Denis O’Hare as Mr. Greer
Robert Prescott as Mr. Verne
Austin Williams as Henry Clayton
Merritt Wever as Anna
David Lansbury as Timmy Clayton
Bill Raymond as Gabe Zabel
David Zayas as Detective Dalberto
Skipp Sudduth as Jerry Dante
Directed by Tony Gilroy
Michael Clayton (George Clooney) has spent over twenty years in the belly of the corporate beast, the bag man for Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, one of the largest law firms in the world, and he wants out, but flaws of luck and character have kept him chained to his job, and he’s burnt out, and he’s not the only one. When his old friend and mentor (Tom Wilkinson) breaks down in the middle of a contentious class action law suit for one of their largest clients, Michael finds himself in the middle of the highest stakes of corporate gambling, and for the first time unsure if he is up to the task.
An extremely capable thriller from first time director Tony Gilroy (the “Bourne” trilogy), “Michael Clayton” takes a more subtle look at the problems, existential and practical, of modern corporate espionage. Gilroy subscribes to the less is more school of thought for storytelling, foregoing standard exposition for circuitous, oblique references to past events that makes the audience do some work to understand everything that’s been going and how it all ties together. It greatly rewards an attentive viewer with multiple levels of detail, but anyone only casually watching could be hopelessly lost. He also foregoes obvious melodrama, always opting for subtlety in word and deed that instills the film with a great deal of realism which, when you’re dealing with a crazy lawyer who strips naked in a deposition, is saying something. The realism is also one of the films few real downsides, though, once it starts to delve into darker territory. As impossible as it is for a modern company to even tap its employees’ phones without getting caught, it’s hard to believe they could successfully get away with murder for any length of time.
Michael Clayton himself is an ambiguous and unlikely hero and Clooney plays him well with just the right mix of restrained desperation. Filled with a certain amount of self-loathing for his place in the world, it still doesn’t stop him from always looking out for his own self-interest, even at his most ‘heroic.’ A generally dim view of humanity fills the film; only the insane are truly capable of real contact with other people.
Clayton’s opposite number is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) the self-conscious ‘villain’ of the piece who feels compelled by an increasing desperation to save her job by saving her company to do heinous things. In Crowder, Gilroy and Swinton have captured what Barbara Tuchman called the ‘true banality of evil.’ Crowder is no mustache-twirling megalomaniac, just a hard working lawyer who has so completely lossed track of herself that she doesn’t know how far off the beaten path she’s gotten.
They’re backed up by a truly excellent supporting cast that maintains a lot of the films verité feeling, especially Sydney Pollack as the firm’s beleaguered senior partner. The only overbearing note is Wilkinson’s mad Arthur Edens, but it’s a tribute to Wilkinson’s skill that he largely fits into the carefully crafted world around him, even while undergoing a nervous breakdown.
Like a lot of thrillers, it’s still concerned with its plot first and foremost and ultimately, focused on what it’s characters are going through moreso than what they think about what they’re going through, leaves the audience to create a lot of meaning themselves out of ambiguous, possibly arbitrary actions.
Still, there’s a lot of skill involved in “Michael Clayton” and an understated, ambiguous hero that’s becoming more and more rare in modern film. Even if under its subtle surface there isn’t really much there, the surface is good enough to make it worthwhile.