I recently rewatched this 2007 film when I was in the mood one night for some sort of mystery or thriller and didn’t have anything new at hand. I don’t have the internet at home, and it was a bit late for a library or video store run. Looking through my small DVD collection, I grabbed this, knowing that it had been several years since I last watched it. I was not disappointed. Although I remembered most of the plot (perhaps because I did), many of the nuances of acting, direction and cinematography were more noticeable to me, and I came away from it with great admiration. Here was not just a quality thriller, but a very good film in its own right.
The plot chronicles the workings of a legal case involving a class action suit against a large Monsanto-like company called U-North for covering up the fact that one of its widely-used herbicides is carcinogenic. Attorney Michael Clayton (George Clooney) gets pulled into the intrigue due to the apparent mental breakdown of his friend and colleague Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), who is lead counsel for the firm defending U-North. Clayton is a “fixer,” a lawyer called upon by the firm to make their clients’ legal problems disappear (in a powerful scene near the beginning he’s called to the house of a wealthy client who’s been involved in a hit-and-run accident). He’s brought in to “look after” his colleague, but U-North becomes wary of Edens because of his seeming instability and puts its own general counsel, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), on the case as well. Things escalate from there and Clayton soon discovers that there’s much more to the case than meets the eye.
This sounds, of course, like it could be the plot of any one of a number of thrillers of this sort, and plot-wise, that’s probably true. What makes Michael Clayton special is the execution. What’s immediately apparent is the seriousness of the approach. The viewer soon realizes that he’s not in standard thriller territory, even in the opening credits, as they feature a disjointed voiceover by someone you discover not long afterwards is Edens.
There is also the matter of the title. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review, the fact that the film is named after the main character indicates that this is his story – the story of a man, as opposed to the standard plot-driven sort of thriller in which characters are often interchangeable.
Finally, both the script and directorial style lend to the movie’s dramatic feel. The writing is smart and realistic, and both the direction and camera-work, while exhibiting a certain amount of modern “stylishness,” are ultimately rather traditional. None of this should be taken to mean that the movie screams “Take me seriously!” or is in any sense either preachy or morose, however. Michael Clayton is neither a message movie nor an existential downer.
All of this is certainly praiseworthy, for debut director and long-time screenwriter Tony Gilroy especially. The movie both looks and feels great. But what really carries the film over into excellence is the cast. The performances here are uniformly outstanding, demonstrated by the fact that all three lead actors received Oscar nominations.
Clooney is perfect as Clayton, who’s a bundle of contradictions – tough but inwardly insecure, seemingly in control but secretly at the mercy of bad decisions. His speech, his face, even his body language all show a man who, having to portray strength outwardly due to the nature of his job, is the victim of inner turmoil. I haven’t seen all of Clooney’s movies, but of the ones I have seen, I’d say without reservation that this is his best dramatic performance, and he very much deserved the Oscar nomination.
The great British actor Tom Wilkinson is equally excellent as Edens, the bipolar lead attorney who’s a genius, but highly unstable when off his meds. The role requires Wilkinson to go back and forth between prideful condescension and manic moral crusaderism, and he pulls this off with great aplomb.
Finally, Tilda Swinton’s performance as Karen Crowder is simply genius, evinced by her winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and just about every other equivalent award that year. It’s obvious from her opening scene that she is trying and just barely succeeding to hold everything together in her lonely personal life, while having constantly to put on her best front as the legal face of U-North. Some of the scenes in which she’s alone in her apartment preparing for “work” are positively chilling. The secondary cast members are all quite good as well, with special mention going to Sidney Pollack as the head of Clayton’s legal firm.
Director Gilroy and team have in Michael Clayton put together what is the best legal thriller of recent years, and possibly one of the best ever. What makes the film so good is that this is achieved not by flash and manufactured tension, but by intelligence, quality and humanity.
(The film is rated R for language, which includes a couple crude sexually explicit references. Thankfully, the latter are few.)
—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years. He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.