During one scene, high powered corporate lawyer Karen Crowder (Tilda
Swinton) practices answers for a coming interview. How do you achieve a
work-life balance? The question, of course, could apply to us all.
Ideals versus the reality of paying a mortgage? Trapped in a fast
lifestyle. You maybe realise what you are doing is less than perfect.
How easily can you get out? (One might also ask, how do serious actors
balance worthwhile projects against box-office returns. A question that
seems to prompt the fluctuating choices of stars like Swinton and
By putting such an impasse at the heart of the movie, Michael Clayton
becomes more than an edge-of-your-seat legal drama: it is a powerful
psychological study that asks how far we will go to avoid facing
Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is an in-house 'fixer.' He works for a
big New York law firm. He sorts out their dirty work. For instance, a
big client is involved in a hit-and-run. Or bad stories in the press
that need smoothed out. Clayton is good at his job. But discontented.
Divorce, gambling addiction, failed business venture, loads of debt. No
easy way out, even if he wanted one.
U-North is a large agrichemical company (think Constant Gardener).
Their in-house chief counsel is Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). Karen
wants to see off a multi-million dollar class action suit. Clayton's
firm is employed to wind it all up nicely for her. But Clayton's
colleague, the brilliant Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has an apparent
mental breakdown. He strips off during a deposition. Then tries to
sabotage the entire case. Clayton goes in to 'fix' things, yet he is
gradually forced to admit how good the firm has maybe become at making
wrong seem right.
Much in the tradition of Erin Brockovitch or even Syriana, this is a
film that tries to attack the respected authorities while still working
within the format of mainstream cinema. (More cynically, it uses high
production values and scenes that last no longer than the attention
span of passive audiences supposedly the length of a TV commercial
Directed by the man who wrote the Bourne trilogy, Michael Clayton racks
up an intelligent suspense movie out of a plot nominally too dry for
mass-market appeal. It reminds us of a world of imperatives we all
succumb to. Maybe we don't always stop to question our job or its
ethics too closely? Finish our overtime. Get reports ready for
tomorrow. Close the deal. Have some private life. Let's leave
philosophy for people with time on their hands. 'Nothing to do with
This is a moral-dilemma-movie that could easily have failed and
doesn't. Two hours of lawyer-talk could be enough to bore anyone. But
the screenplay cleverly contrasts high-intensity scenes and
well-developed characters. Arthur's psychotic ranting. Clooney's
impenetrable cool. Swinton's prepared polish. These are displayed in
the boardroom. Or uncomfortably restrained emotion in family scenes.
The high-stakes backroom card game. Or the simple, almost
documentary-like portrayal of one of the plaintiffs claiming damages
Director Tony Gilroy is in no hurry to play all his cards. By the time
murder enters the game, we are so engrossed that it seems like a
Cinematography by Oscar-nominated Robert Elswit is crucial. Right from
the start, we are torn by fascinating contrasts. A long panning shot
through expensive, empty offices is coupled with a sound-over of manic
rambling. Suddenly the camera wanders into a busy room. An annoying
reporter over the phone. And the overheard phrase, "The time is now,"
brings everything together in the present. Shortly afterwards, a
horrific scene in which Clayton is almost killed. Then flashback four
days to unravel a 'smoking gun' that can overturn the lawsuit on which
lives, careers and whole firms rely.
At one point, a shadow on the lower right of the screen could almost be
an audience member standing up. As it advances, we see it is Clooney.
His 'reality-check' moment one with which we have been subtly led to
identify then saves his life. The subsequent soul-searching and inner
turmoil also provide one of Clooney's most rounded and complex
performances to date. (Additional casting is spot-on, with Wilkinson
and Swinton both excelling themselves.)
Clayton's ability to ask himself difficult questions is matched by
Crowder's knack for self-deception. It is a frightening depiction of
the legal mastery of words when she gives instructions for the most
abominable acts with total deniability.
Although the overly obvious Blackberry product-placement annoyed me
slightly, I found Michael Clayton a satisfying film without any of the
usual over-simplified characters. Threads are pulled together a bit too
conveniently towards the end, but it succeeds in never seeming
contrived. If you have always put off thinking a little too deeply
about where your own life is heading, it might even give you a
necessary nudge. But as all-round entertainment to a thinking audience,
Michael Clayton is one of this summer's better movies.