Intelligent and subversive, Michael Clayton abandons all cliches beholden to legal thrillers. It’s a morality tale of carefully refined proportions, a character study of a problematic man who can handle any problem. Tony Gilroy’s lean script and stylish but unassuming direction allows stars George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson and Sydney Pollack to shine with thoughtful, commanding performances.
Clooney plays Clayton, a special type of lawyer known as a “fixer,” someone hired by high-powered client to handle the tricky nuances and legal loopholes of anything from rear end collisions to embarrassing prostitution stings. His interpersonal relationships are strong but marred, with him holding bitterness to some, and others to him. Wilkinson plays Arthur, another brilliant lawyer but with a history of mental illness. Arthur is defending U-North, a chemical company, when he has a psychotic break and strips down naked in a deposition. And Swinton plays Karen Crowder, U-North’s chief counsel who must deal with Clayton and Arthur, often with illegal and unconscionable means.
It’s a movie where dialogue is inexplicit, where key phrases and motifs are uttered under one’s breath and easy to miss. It’s also the type of film where intelligence triumphs over emotion as the primary plot driver. Everyone in this film is well-educated and well-articulated individuals, whose job is quite literally to make unemotional arguments. But it’s when Clayton interacts with people not fluent in his legal vernacular that we find more tender moments, like his heart to hearts with his son, or an early-morning argument with his police officer brother.
This film has only gotten better over 10 years since it’s release. Back then it was ahead of its time, and still feels that way in 2017. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a movie like “Michael Clayton” being made today, not that its overly smart or complicated, but just that there is so little excitement or major moments that compel us in the way a typical 2017 movie would. It’s a masterful script and story, full provocative imagery, a sweeping score from James Newton Howard and moving but not overpowering performances, commanding us to to listen carefully and uncover the truth.