Michael Clayton is a character who gets a wake-up call. It’s not an “oh, wow, they killed off that character” moment, it’s not a clever reveal, it’s not an “instant classic episode.” It isn’t sudden, it isn’t a moment of clarity, it’s a lifetime’s worth. Smuggled in under the cover of mainstream entertainment and paranoid legal ’70s-homage potboiler, this is a meditative film, one that advocates waking up, and not the cheap ID-politics form of “woke,” but a true depth of thought, an earned and adult contemplation of a corporate-controlled world, and a skepticism aimed at the logo’d and branded, at the proliferation of pedantic hive-minded groupthink.
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The opening monologue of Tony Gilroy’s 2007 film Michael Clayton is spoken by the character Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), whose name evokes both the medieval King Arthur and the Garden of Eden from Christian lore. It is a rant of Pynchonian paranoia, an Adam Curtis documentary in miniature replete with themes of corruption, hierarchy, predation, and personal guilt, the confession of an apparatchik for “an organism whose sole function is to excrete the poison, the ammo, the defoliant necessary for other larger more powerful organisms to destroy the miracle of humanity and that I had been coated in this patina of shit for the best part of my life.” Edens is a defense attorney and litigator who has succumbed to a form of PTSD incurred from representing – for six years, over 30,000 billable hours, $50 million in fees, hundreds of dispositions, and thousands of documents in discovery – a massive corporate entity called UNorth, manufacturer of a weed killer that has managed to kill not just weeds but people, 468 of them, poor family-farm folk who are but profit impediments to UNorth and the law firm that represents them, Edens’s employer Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. Arthur later grapples with his awakening in his first on-screen conversation with the titular Michael Clayton (George Clooney): “Am I this freak organism that has been sent here to sleep and eat and defend this one horrific chain of carcinogenic molecules? Is that my destiny? Is that my fate?”
In these lines are echoes of previous films in this mode, predecessors like Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000) or Steven Zaillian’s A Civil Action (1998), but writer/director Tony Gilroy’s more prominent influences come from the 1970s. Michael Clayton is the offspring of the works of Alan Pakula, particularly The Parallax View (1974), and Sidney Lumet’s canonical NYC films Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), and The Verdict (1982). The oeuvre of John LeCarre comes to mind as well, not so much the Cold War spy stuff but more the milieu put to screen by Fernando Meirelles in his 2005 adaptation of The Constant Gardener, a complex, patient, your-full-attention-is-required mainstream movie for grownups that would have little chance of garnering either its $25 million budget or its $82 million in box office today in 2018. Cinematographically, Michael Clayton is inspired by Owen Roizman (The Exorcist, Network, The French Connection, Three Days of the Condor) and lensed by outstanding director of photography Robert Elswit (frequent collaborator of Paul Thomas Anderson who also worked on Clooney projects Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck). The film even features, in a key supporting role as Marty Bach, the 1970s’ other directorial Sidney of note, Sidney Pollock.
Sidney Pollock and Sidney Lumet are both dead. Anthony Minghella, a producer on Michael Clayton, is also dead. Movies may not quite be dead, but American cinematic culture is greatly diminished, and movies of this type (an adult drama that requires an engaged and undistracted viewership) are all but dead within the Hollywood studio system, which itself is not dead, though its influence is certainly waning, ceding ground to internet and TV. The New York City in this film is dead, as Manhattan has become a cartoonish playground for legacy millionaires and their trustafarian spawn. The New York of films like this, if it exists anywhere at all, has moved deep into the outer boroughs, excluding the hipsterland that is most of Brooklyn. If Michael Clayton got made today, and somehow entrusted to a screenwriter with no previous directorial credits, as Gilroy was then, it would be a miniseries on HBO or some other outlet like Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu, not a theatrical release competing with the Star Wars universe, Marvel movies, and varied other all-ages tentpoles. Gilroy is on record as saying, “The movie business has fundamentally changed, as anybody who’s got their eyes open knows, and it’s never changing back.… If you want to stay in cinema, you either have to go very very big or very very small or if you want to go into the movie business that I thought I was leading myself towards, you have to go into television in America now.”
What makes Michael Clayton so important is that it is essentially the last of its kind, a work of immersive realism, of filmic art that is also entertaining (or, if you prefer, an entertaining movie that is also artful), a tightly plotted yet capacious and character-driven drama – it is The Last Hollywood Studio Movie for Adults. Michael Clayton has made $100 million worldwide as of this writing, but despite its highbrow pedigree and moderate awards-season successes, it’s oft-overlooked, a shibboleth classic, a badge of film literacy and seriousness. Not surprisingly, its Wikipedia page is full of errors and misreadings, even though it was Oscar-nominated in its year of release, with a number of notable critics, including Richard Roeper (At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper), Richard Schickel (Time), and Claudia Puig (USA Today), voting it their #1 film of the year.
Tony Gilroy has gone on to direct only two other movies. Some would call them middling at best and disappointments at worst, but they are competent if blemished fare (2009’s Duplicity and 2012’s The Bourne Legacy). He wrote four of the Bourne movies, and his largest mainstream financial success has been with Disney’s Star Wars expanded-universe side project Rogue One (2016), where he is rumored to have shaped the final product as much as nominal director Gareth Edwards. These corporate vehicles seem like the kinds of things the Gilroy of Michael Clayton would decry, but don’t discount a return to brilliance from the filmmaker. An old script of Gilroy’s from 1991 was recently unearthed and made into Beirut, an entertaining film, perhaps a tad too tidy, directed by Brad Anderson and just released in April 2018. And Gilroy’s pedigree, as son of Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Frank D. Conroy, along with his incisive mind, provides hope that perhaps he could shrug off the yoke of ready-made franchises and helm a worthwhile television series as showrunner, if he were so inclined.
Gilroy has called Michael Clayton a movie about lawyers that doesn’t go near a courtroom. This is about the back of the house, the kitchen of the law firm. Early on, Michael refers to himself as a fixer, not a miracle worker but a janitor. A clean-up artist is thus the titular character, and the title is significant in its simplicity and directness while retaining a sense of mystery. This is not going to venerate spectacle. This is about a character, a three-dimensional human being, flawed and fallible, a central protagonist who changes over the course of his journey. Michael Clayton’s story requires you to invest yourself in it, to concentrate, to devote your mind and your eyes, to watch it straight through in 120 minutes. It is something stolid and self-contained, unlikely to spawn a sequel or a side project. From minute one through its finale, this is not for the juvenile.
After Edens’s off-screen monologue leads us down the corridors of the legal offices that open the film, we arrive at an agglomeration of lawyers pushing through the U-North settlement, deflecting calls for comment from a Wall Street Journal reporter and awaiting the arrival of U-North (United Northfield) general counsel Karen Crowder – an Oscar-winning performance by Tilda Swinton, the sort of acting that makes overused terms like tour de force seem dead-on accurate instead of critic-speak shorthand. Swinton’s display of thespian skill here is colossal, and Karen’s first appearance is one of the most indelible shots in the film. Curled up in a bathroom stall, she is pallid, vampiric, gothic and encoffined, sweat pouring from her body, racked with anxiety and dread and checking her own pulse. She opens the film symbolically dead and will end it the same way.
Next, we get Michael Clayton leaving an underground poker game to do what he does best – to fix, to clean, to janitorize. We see him doing his job, one we are repeatedly told and shown that only he can do, helping one of the firm’s affluent clients secure an attorney after the client has hit-and-run a jogger with his custom Jaguar XJ12. Clayton is an expert at the art of containment. The client, a Mr. Greer (a killer bit of showmanship from top-notch theatre actor Denis O’Hare), isn’t happy, he’s not going to get away scot free, and Clayton is not behaving like the “miracle worker” Greer was promised. But Clayton isn’t there to offer magic solutions or get-out-of-jail-free cards, he’s there to minimize the damages. We see him drive away from the scene, his work duties weighing on him, a problem solver unable to solve the problem of himself, and in a scene set at daybreak, he finds solitude and sanctuary in a copse, brown-grassed and denuded-treed, with three horses (symbolizing Michael and the other two Clayton brothers who will appear in the film), and before he can purge a tear or rub a muzzle, in the background his Mercedes explodes. This is fifteen minutes into the two-hour film. The car smolders, a besuited Clooney runs toward it, and we get a fade to black with a title card reading “four days earlier.”
The next image to appear is the Rosetta Stone to the entire film, a computer monitor displaying the title screen for a video game entitled Realm & Conquest. We are in the bedroom of Henry, Michael Clayton’s ten-year-old son, who calls out, “Mom, where’s my cards?” We’ve just seen his father playing poker, and now we see Henry, bluffing his mother about having eaten breakfast, asking after his own playing cards, and being defended by a nebbish stepfather named Gerald (Frank Wood), a beta-male second husband to contrast with Clooney’s gruff but debonair alpha. Henry rushes out to meet his dad, whom he clearly doesn’t see often.
The deck of cards is related to Realm & Conquest, which is not just a video game but also a card game and a series of books. In the car, Henry Clayton describes the fantasy-genre world of Realm & Conquest to his father: “No one’s even sure exactly where they are because there’s no borders or landmarks or anything. And the town? It’s not even a town really. It just is this camp where all these people have gathered to hide. All these deserters and guys who get cut off from their armies.” This statement is true of almost all the film’s major and minor players, and particularly the three main characters, Michael, Arthur, and Karen. “All these people that are in the woods,” Henry continues, “trying to stay alive. There’s thieves, gray mages, unbidden warriors, Dark Avians, Riverwynders and Sappers. There’s like fifteen different characters and nobody has any alliances. You can’t even say who you are because, you don’t know, maybe the person you’re talking to, maybe they’re like your mortal enemy in the wars. So it’s just completely, like, everybody for themselves.” Michael’s response is, “Sounds familiar.”
Like that, Gilroy cleverly lays out his themes, particularly the notion that people are what they are and cannot change, along with a commentary on the mercantile and mercenary lifestyle that relates to the three major characters mentioned above, as well as Marty Bach, the film’s two hitmen, Mr. Verne (Robert Prescott) and Mr. Iker (Terry Serpico), who will eventually assassinate Arthur (another form of weeding), and to others including Gabe (Bill Raymond), a middleman for a loan shark who Michael, having picked up his younger brother Timmy’s debt, owes money to, and Lieutenant Elston (Christopher Mann), a cop from Milwaukee who Michael greases with cash, also offering to set him up with tickets to the game should he ever make it to New York City. Later, Michael’s older brother Gene (Sean Cullen) says to Michael: “You’ve got everybody fooled, you’ve got all these cops thinking you’re some sort of lawyer and all these lawyers thinking you’re some sort of cop. But you know what you are.” Michael is a hired hand. He covers up other men’s sins. Or, as Arthur tells him at one point: “Michael, I have great affection for you. And you lead a very rich and interesting life, but you’re a bagman not an attorney.”
And that is accurate, that’s what Michael is before the decision he makes by the end of the film. He is a bagman, a collector, not so dissimilar from Gabe the low-level mafioso, as, of course, the institutions of la cosa nostra (or their non-Italian-American equivalents) and a big-time NYC law firm run along eerily similar lines. Michael is an executor, one who carries out the will of richer and more powerful men. Michael tries unsuccessfully to be a restaurateur, a poker player, a trial lawyer, a husband, but he already has his niche, as his boss Marty Bach calls it when Clayton comes to hit him up for eighty-grand to pay off the debt incurred by backing his baby brother Timmy, an addict, in the purchasing of a bar & restaurant.
What gives a person individuality in this world is their value. This is a social Darwinist sphere. Michael is forty-five and broke, having backed the wrong horse, his brother who wanted to open a small business and pursue the American dream. Michael also wanted to be put back on a litigation team because that’s what he personally enjoyed, but Marty Bach tells it like it is, that anyone can go into court, it’s not that special, but, “At this, what you do, you’re great. For Christ’s sake, Michael, you got something everybody wants; you have a niche, you made a place, you made a niche for yourself. And if it’s nostalgia – ‘Oh boy, you shoulda seen me when I was a DA back in Queens’ – let me give you a serious piece of advice: leave it there. God forbid you’re not as good as you remember because I’ve seen that happen too.”
We are confined by our own niches, imprisoned in them; typecast, incarcerated, and usually unable to escape the constraints of the self. Early in the film, at the previously mentioned poker game, one of Clayton’s opponents is played by filmmaker (and one of the showrunners of Showtime program Billions) Brian Koppelman. He asks Clayton if he remembers him and Clooney responds that he does. “Because I’ve lost a lot of weight since then,” says Koppelman’s character. “You bought some hair too,” says Clayton. “With your money,” the rounder responds, and taunts Clayton about his business venture that never took off, “So, what happened with the bar? You just had to be a rock star, huh?” Improvement to his external appearance doesn’t change who he is; a grinder, a wiseass. He’s not dapper, even compared to a disheveled Clooney as Clayton; he’s “poker guy.” We simply are not nearly as supple as the superficial world of the present wants to convince us that we are, largely in order to sell us products to augment ourselves, manipulate our images, or create an online/social media self, an e-dentity. This used to be one of the signs of adulthood, this realization. Now there is the notion that you can somehow resist this, that aging is negotiable, that biology doesn’t matter, that childhood never has to end and all that matters is how you feel. These are the very bourgeois comforts that Michael Clayton posits are downright sociopathic. This is a very layered film, and one of those layers is the self, the construction of identity. Are we what we do? What we aspire to? Who our family sees us as? What choices do we make when we are faced with daunting professional and personal obstacles, even life-threatening ones, when the “chips are down,” to stay with the poker metaphor that sluices craftily through the picture, and are these choices what define us? Who is the “real” Michael Clayton, the janitor or the savior? Who is the “real” Arthur Edens, the holy fool savant or the unsavvy maker of his own untimely death? Who is the “real” Karen Crowder, a woman caught in a patriarchal maelstrom with no one to turn to or a heartless murderer?
Marty Bach is both a parallel and a contrast to Michael. Early in the film, Michael comes up short when trying to auction off the remnants of his restaurant, from refrigerators to salad bowls to fixtures and furniture. Later, when Arthur’s revelations threaten to destroy Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, and an imminent merger they have with a firm in London, Marty says that if they don’t close the U-North settlement, “The merger with London will be dead and we’ll be selling off the goddamn furniture.” During this scene, Marty Bach calls Michael “soft.” Earlier, at Marty’s house, Bach says to Michael, “When did you get so fucking delicate?” Marty has hardened himself into the calloused but practical leader of men who knows how the sausage is made, someone trying to insulate himself from aging and emasculation with a regal manse, a much younger wife (named Cindy, no less), and his precocious young children, but he is every bit as exposed to the whims of fortune as everyone else in the film. He is contending with the cold reality of what David Foster Wallace once spoke of in his now famous Kenyon College Class of 2005 Commencement address, “And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self.” Wallace’s first biographer is D. T. Max, who penned a yeoman-like essay about Tony Gilroy entitled “Twister – How Tony Gilroy Surprises Jaded Moviegoers” published in the March 16, 2009 New Yorker where he presciently comments on the oddly dignified quality of Clooney’s portrayal of a cynic who tires of that raiment, and says of Michael Clayton:
Gilroy’s movie was taut and intelligent, and evoked the Hollywood of the nineteen-seventies, when thrillers were anchored by complex characters. Today, the film industry considers adult-oriented drama a small target, and one that is getting smaller. Middle-aged Americans don’t go to the movies; young adults and teen-agers do, and they prefer action to talk, in part because they believe they know every possible movie character already. A screenwriter interested in human behavior can find himself ignored by big-studio executives looking for movies propelled by spectacle and superheroes. The trend is making movies that don’t need screenwriters.
After encouraging his dad to read Realm & Conquest, young Henry Clayton challenges his father to a bet when Michael implies that by the time he finishes reading Realm & Conquest, his son will be onto some new fascination. Earlier we’ve seen Michael at the poker table, but it is implied that over the long run he is a losing player. His attempting to open the restaurant with Timmy was also a form of gambling. Later in the film – like father, like son – both Michael and Henry will sullenly exclaim “What?!” from the passenger seat of a car, in response to absolute silence that they view as a form of judgment and interrogation. When Michael drops his son off at school, in a lovely inversion he says, just before his son exits the car: “Go. Teach these people something, would you?” Inversions are tapestried through Michael Clayton. The powerful can quickly become the powerless. Mr. Greer, Michael’s client ensconced in Westchester wealth, who accidentally hits someone with his car, has his life changed for the worse in a matter of seconds, a random night driving home and boom, all of a sudden everything you’ve worked your entire life to acquire and maintain is at risk. This happens to various characters and institutions in the film and forms the spine of Gilroy’s perspective about the rapacity of the human species and the randomness of any given individual’s fate.
In a fine bit of foreshadowing, as Michael attempts to set up a “payment plan” with Gabe the middleman, Gabe is surprised that Michael wants to front the money when they both know it’s Michael’s brother Timmy that Gabe should be talking to. Gabe says of Timmy, “He’s got to have something,” and Michael replies, “He’s got the two kids with her (Timmy’s wife). He’s got Jennifer, the coke-dealing waitress that he knocked up. He’s got four Michelin radials that he stole from my sister’s garage.” Timmy’s an addict, that’s what he has, that is his identity: one who repeatedly succumbs. The restaurant was to be called Tim’s, but clearly he’s a Timmy and always has been. Henry even calls him Uncle Timmy when he sees him briefly. Gabe says to Michael, trying to collect without having to threaten: “I had a wife who was a drunk. She was a beautiful girl, young girl. But live like that? Even they do a program – She did, I think, once, two years. And then they slip? Forget it. It’s like you’re strapped to a bomb.” Michael, who we’ve just seen barely survive a car bombing, invested in his brother’s dream, and that was a bomb, a flop, a no-go; Timmy took the money and spent it on drugs. Later, Michael’s other brother, Gene the NYPD detective, confronts him about Michael’s own addictions and Michael replies: “I haven’t bet on a game in over a year. I haven’t been in a card room in ten months. I gambled on the bar. I bet on Timmy and he wiped me out.” Michael’s $75K debt from betting on Timmy is in many ways the character’s objective correlative. Michael himself was once beautiful and young, but now he’s constantly cleaning up other people’s messes. As is Gabe. As are Karen Crowder and Arthur Edens, cleaning up U-North’s mess. Then, when Arthur decides to switch teams, to try and salvage his soul, it’s time to send in the hitmen to clean up that mess, that split end, that loose cannon, formerly a “killer” attorney (as Michael calls him, trying to explain Arthur’s worth to Karen) and now to become, in a most sobering inversion, the victim, the killed.
Michael Clayton’s father Raymond is also a retired NYC beat cop, they whose job it is to walk a beat, to keep the streets “clean.” What does AA try to help an addict do? Why, “clean up” of course. When Timmy makes his first on-screen appearance, it’s outside his parents’ family home, his posture humped by a mixture of shame and resilience, announcing to Michael that he’s eight days sober, back at meetings. Earlier, when Gene defends Timmy as someone who’s “fallen off the wagon,” victim to a “sickness,” Michael takes a less sensitive approach, but Gene reminds him that Michael’s only recently “clean” from playing cards and sports betting himself.
Karen Crowder’s desperate attempts to cover things up, to scrub herself and UNorth of liability, are at the core of her character. She’s a villain not because she’s some Machiavellian schemer but because she’s inept, she’s unadaptable, she has failed at life despite the outward appearance of a victor. She’s a practicer, a preparer, a meticulous overachiever plunged out of her depth. Karen is deeply neurotic, exhibits aspects of OCD, and is a worshipper of order, a rule follower who can’t adjust when the predictable is replaced by the random swerve, the unpredictable clinamen of Arthur Edens’s conscience kicking in. She has no sense of self, is terrible at dealing with stress, and doesn’t know how to balance, or even separate, work and life, to the point that she answers a question from an interviewer – “So with all that pressure and workload, how do you keep a balance between work and life?” – thusly. “Balance?” Then nervous laughter. Her mentor Don Jeffries, a beefy man in an expensive suit, sits next to her, laughing much more comfortably. Jeffries looks eerily like Donald Trump, with downright prophetic choices made by actor Ken Howard in the swaggering bulk, demanding diction, and in his last scene, his crimes revealed, as security guards and police arrive to arrest him, Jeffries tells them, referring to Michael Clayton, “Remove that guy … grab that guy,” a blowhard uber-executive type who doesn’t for a second think his orders won’t be immediately complied with, reminiscent of then not-yet President Trump at a January 2016 rally, dealing with a protester by blustering “Confiscate his coat!”
“I think that’s um,” Karen continues to contend with the interviewer’s question of balance, “that’s something you search for your whole life, isn’t it? Um.…” Then we cut to her rehearsing her answer in her hotel room in the hours leading up to the interview. “It’s a shifting balance, really,” followed by more hemming, hawing, and trying to craft the safest, most innocuous corporate-speak answer possible. She rehearses it multiple times more, trying, “When you really are enjoying what it is you do, who needs balance?” before settling on, “Don Jeffries brought me in here twelve years ago, trusted me, mentored me, welcomed me into the U-North family.” She is acknowledging her own debts, trying to stay on script, “And when he moved up to the boardroom, I never really dreamt that I would have the opportunity to move into his position.” It’s niggling at her. Did I get this job because I deserved it? Because I fooled them into thinking I could do it? Because U-North wanted a woman in the position for PR reasons? She is trying so hard to convince herself that she’s up to the task. And this will lead to her unravelling, her refusal to ask for assistance, and her licensing a pair of contract assassins to commit murder before she would admit that she doesn’t know what to do. When panic sets in, she has no moral compass to turn to, she remains a tabula rasa, a most telling contrast with Michael, who changes by film’s end from one who carries out the will of others to one who does something not for money but because it is the right thing.
This delivers Michael to something more organic, less determined, whereas Karen remains robotic. Parallels to the failed presidential run of of Hillary Clinton are hard to ignore when watching the film in the aftermath of her loss to a seemingly far inferior candidate. Karen exercises on a treadmill – fake running, done on a computerized machine, running but not getting anywhere – while in the background Arthur reads aloud the damning memorandum that proves UNorth knew its product was fatal, and that will eventually become the smoking gun and bring about the end of U-North, Don Jeffries, and Karen Crowder. Likewise, when confronted with Arthur’s clothes-removing rant at the deposition in Milwaukee, Karen can’t compute the video. She’s never heard of Michael Clayton. He is an unforeseen variable. “Who is this guy?” she asks a subordinate, wondering why Clayton’s been at his firm for seventeen years and is working “wills and trusts” (a telling title) instead of enjoying the status of a partner. He’s not an ambitious utility-over-morality social climber like herself. She can’t put herself in other people’s shoes. She has no capacity for empathy. And that right there is the definition of a sociopath.
Michael Clayton and Arthur Edens are insiders who choose to become outsiders. Arthur has made his choice before the film even begins. Over the course of the picture Michael makes his transformation, but too indolently to save Arthur. Karen cannot comprehend the role of outsiders or the mindset of improvisors. The first thing she says to Michael Clayton is, “You’re late.” They have diametrically opposed approaches and are literally opposed at the climax of the film. During their first meeting, Karen asks Michael, regarding Arthur’s awakening, “What does this mean?” She is great at following rules, but she doesn’t know why the rules exist. She is not a good interpreter of information. She is a literalist.
Arthur is truly tied to nothing; he is estranged from his expatriate daughter (“She’s crazier than he’ll ever be,” says Marty Bach) and his wife has died a year previous. He is a rogue element, a nonconformist, and like many of America’s nonconformists, he is harshly punished. When his colleague Michael Clayton intervenes to bail him out in Milwaukee, this fits into Arthur’s emergent worldview. He says, “There’s a reason it’s you, Michael, surely you have some sense of that, how it pulls together, how it gathers. Nurse Michael, the secret hero, the keeper of the hidden sins; tell me you can see that, for God’s sake.” Are hidden sins a theme? Well, this is very much a film about a reckoning. After Michael gets him released, Arthur speaks with Michael’s son Henry (surveilled by his stepfather as Arthur is surveilled by U-North, as Anna Keyserson is by her sister, as Michael is later tracked by hitmen) on the telephone about the first book in the Realm & Conquest series, a volume entitled “Summons to Conquest.” The key witness who has inspired Arthur’s epiphany is also an innocent, Anna Keyserson (a terrific Merritt Wever), a teenage Wisconsin farmgirl described by Arthur as “God’s perfect little creature,” and as a “miracle.” Her parents are dead, her brother is dying. Arthur knows he has blood on his hands, even referring to himself as Shiva the God of Death. Earlier, Henry Clayton told his mother, “It’s a miracle” when rationalizing a lie about eating his breakfast when he really hadn’t, but he was too anxious to see his father to eat, and too consumed by looking for his Realm & Conquest cards. His father Michael got his law degree from Fordham and his bachelor’s degree from St. John’s, both Catholic universities. Arthur refers to Clayton as Saint Michael. His official title is “special counsel.” He works in wills and trusts.
In answer to Karen Crowder’s question, Michael is very much a savior. After running into Timmy outside the Clayton home, Timothy now recovering from his dependency issues, this is Henry’s only glimpse of his uncle in the film. Henry asks his dad if Uncle Timmy is crying, then, receiving no answer, he says, “Because of drugs, right?” and Michael stops the car to tell his son that, unlike Michael’s brother, Henry is strong, that on Timmy’s best day he wasn’t as tough as Henry: “When you see him like that, you don’t have to worry because that’s not how it’s gonna be for you. You’re not gonna be one of these people who goes through life wondering why shit keeps falling out of the sky around them. I see it every time I look at you. I see it right now.” He says this not merely to ameliorate his own guilt, but in an attempt to save his boy from winding up like Timmy, and like himself. Just after this speech, Michael gets the call that he failed to save Arthur. Michael’s last name contains the word “clay.” He is a man of malleable ethics who over the course of the movie decides to take a stand, to try to shape his own life and that of the inheritor of his patrimony. Gilroy’s own miracle is to make this stand-taking, this character’s progress, this hard-won learning, this relinquishment of an atomized status quo, not something one-dimensionally heroic or invulnerable or superhero-caped, but truly an adult process of growth; undidactic, non-sappy, thoroughly earned.
When Arthur is locked up, the irony is that he’s never been freer. He has been reborn, and is in a “state of grace” until his death. He is the after, the butterfly; we never really see the caterpillar save for a small indication in the alley scene, confronted by Michael, with Arthur revealing just for a few seconds the great lawyer and tactician he used to be. In the director’s commentary, Gilroy, talking with one of his own two brothers (John, who edited Michael Clayton), points out that if the movie showed us these two characters, Michael and Arthur, two years earlier, they, not Karen Crowder, would be the villains.
But Arthur is dismissed (another popular fate for nonconformists) as hysterical, a crazyman. After his death, the detective who updates Clayton sees it as an open-and-shut suicide case, Arthur a lunatic who was having problems at work and snapped. Henry describes the plot of Realm & Conquest as like a vision quest, a group of people all having the same dream. In a deeply Heideggerian spin, Henry explains that each character, “They all think it’s just them, that maybe they’re, like, going crazy or something, so they don’t want to admit it,” perfectly encapsulating how individual self-preservation and trying too hard to “win” can add up to murderous collectivist harm (it’s not coincidental than the villain’s last name evokes both “crowd” and “caring”). “Yeah but they’re not crazy, are they?” says Arthur. “No, it’s real, it’s really happening,” says Henry. Arthur has realized that he had to shed his old skin and atone for his sins. He is like the characters in Realm & Conquest, part of something larger than themselves. Arthur’s conversion leaves him liberated but blithe, fatefully unaware of the larger game being played. He becomes the sacrifice. He was the architect of U-North’s defense, and that sin must be atoned for with his life. Multiple times in the film Arthur is referred to as “brilliant,” a “bull,” a man of “genius.” Once he decides to pursue righteousness, his law firm wants to have the brilliant, bullish genius committed. He has turned himself into a moral human being, but the world doesn’t suffer good men long. In his bed, before fleeing the hotel in Milwaukee, Arthur tells Michael that the men they work with at Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, “They’re lost. They have what they want.”
To consider again the triptych of main characters, it is helpful to chart their paths thusly. Arthur finds himself but winds up dead. Michael is trying to find himself, but only by surrendering his former self, by stepping out of the preordained path, by exiting the comfortable luxury car to become part of the cold morning tableau of nature, of flora and fauna, does he escape the car bomb, the attempt on his life. Karen is utterly lost – detached and unnatural, synthetic and commodified – and thus becomes a killer. Hers is a mien of caution that morphs into criminality, as the desire to protect order, safety, and profit can invite horrific costs.
Arthur walking around Manhattan, being tracked by the hitmen as he is bombarded by bright-colored screens full of advertisement in Times Square, is on his own vision quest. He figures out that his phone is tapped, that Michael’s bosses want him locked away. This occurs during the scene where Arthur and Michael meet in the alleyway near Arthur’s newly-moved-into downtown loft (a bohemian artist’s residence, not a killer lawyer’s). Michael doesn’t know how to communicate with his colleague anymore. “How do I talk to you? Like a child? Like a nut? What’s the secret?” Arthur carries a bagful of bread, instantiating some Christ symbolism, and later we’ll also see that he’s been hoarding paper towels, connecting to the motif of cleaning. He hands one of the more than a dozen loaves to Michael, and their exchange ends with Michael pleading with Arthur to save himself, to get help. Michael’s still trying to perceive life as a poker game; he tells Arthur he has “great cards,” but Arthur is refusing to play them. Arthur susses out that he’s being surveilled and that his firm wants to commit him in order to assuage the concerns of UNorth, and he is up on the statutes for involuntary incarceration, challenging Michael in another equine reference, “You think you got the horses for that?” Michael responds, “I’m not the enemy.” Arthur then asks a most important and plot-hinging question, “Then who are you?”
Arthur’s namesake king is the one who pulled the sword from the stone, and Arthur Edens is on a quest for a divine vessel, a more Edenic world as his holy grail. Arthur explicitly mentions a “grail” when talking about another event that incited his change of heart/mind/soul, a moment out celebrating with Marty Bach and a pair of prostitutes. “Is this my grail, two Lithuanian mouths on my cock?” is how he reports to Michael his dissatisfaction with hedonism, unsatisfiable greed, and eternal acquisition. Arthur is the martyr. There is more Christ-pose symbolism on the bathroom floor after his murder is concocted to look like a suicide. Immediately prior to Arthur’s death scene, we see Michael’s older brother Gene putting on his gun, another law enforcer who can’t prevent crimes, only clean up after them. After Arthur’s death, we transition to a scene of Michael’s elderly father in his O2 mask watching a basketball game, the horn going off as if to announce “time’s up,” segueing from Arthur’s dead body to this old man who will soon be a corpse himself, an aged patriarch from a different world and time, on respiratory assistance, surrounded and tended to by multiple generations of a family celebrating the day of his birth, possibly for the last time.
Michael, unable to save Arthur, starts on his own quest to bring fairness and justice to the realm. Michael Clayton is a character study of a man who for too long has had no character, a cipher, a Sir Francis Walsingham, the man behind the powerful gentry who’s become tarnished by the shadiness and corruption he marinates in every day, fixing the lives of people who are far better off than their countrymen. He greases the wheels for people who are already very much the haves, and who gets greased? The have nots. The average Joes. The jogger who gets hit by the rich guy’s Jaguar. The litigator who decides to do the right thing. The family farmers. The environment itself. Michael tells Arthur, “You can’t just stop and say, ‘Game over, I’m into miracles.’” The legal system is certainly a rigged game, as is the whole late-capitalist enterprise and the aforementioned American dream. The Empire State Building looms over the film from its opening flashback through its conclusion, and Realm & Conquest is a fine subtitle indeed for this nation of ours and its long and complicated history.
U-North’s slogan is “We grow your world.” Corporations now run America. Free-market capitalism has been usurped by corporatism and plutocracy. Take as example the twin megaliths of Agro-business and Big Pharma, one spreading cancer through food and water, the other dumping cancer cures down the toilet because they aren’t profitable enough. “Cancer” is also a telling word that recurs throughout this film, as does “sickness.” When Gene defends Timmy and alludes to Michael’s own addictions, he speaks of sickness. When Marty Bach realizes that Arthur has gone from defending U-North to making the case for the plaintiffs, he tells Michael: “I don’t know how you’re going to take care of this but this, this is cancer. This is something, we don’t get it reined in and cleaned up soon? Everything is vulnerable. Everything.” It would mean the death of their firm and the disruption or surrendering of their upper-crust privileges. Marty Bach is an older man of tremendous means scrambling for his golden parachute. He’s got a mansion, a young wife, and two young kids that he’s not exactly actively parenting. He’s scared and he’s desperate. He is much more a self-preserving pragmatist than an evil man. Later, after he pays off Michael’s debts for him and ties him to a confidentiality agreement, one that will be “bulletproof and retroactive,” Michael tries to convince Marty that Arthur was right, that Kenner, Bach & Ledeen were representing the wrong side. Marty responds: “We’re on the wrong side. This is news? This case reeked from day one. Fifteen years in, I gotta tell you how we pay the rent?” Michael then accepts the $80K payout and realizes he’s sold out Arthur, the purest and most noble character in the film.
This is not just a film for adults but a film about an adult. Michael Clayton is down to the felt, the aging remnants of charisma, of misspent charm, and maybe that is the present we now inhabit, an America, and a world, that is simply past its prime. The pre-smartphone Eden depicted in this film, just over a decade ago, seems much farther away than that. To be clear, this film came out immediately prior to the rise of the smartphone. The first iPhone was released just a few months before this film. In 2007, a presidential debate as even remotely infantile as the Trump-Clinton fiascos would have been unheard of, though the movie takes place a few years earlier than its release date, in 2003, as Michael is forty-five years old and was born in September of 1959. The present of 2018, a decade-and-a-half hence, is a markedly more childish place, adults playing kiddie games on their devices, a president who behaves like a five-year-old, a nation of endorphin and entertainment addicts, of solipsists and narcissists and Peter Pans.
One of the only possible cures is authenticity, a return to aesthetics over politics, to posterity over the ephemeral, to long-term sustenance over short-term stimulants, to works of art by, for, and about adults. The importance of reality needs to be stressed, a reality that is distorted by “reality” TV and social media, where selling out is a noble goal, where phoniness gets you respect, fame, and money, a botoxed and bronzered and boobjobbed world that assaults us every hour of every day. What’s less real than the smartphone addiction? What’s more authentic than a family farm? Here is a character who actually opts for justice, and not in the self-aggrandizing social justice warrior sense of acronyms and emojis and self-approbation, “I attended a protest” selfies, or “I posted a meme,” or “I hashtagged something too,” not celebrities wearing the right ribbon or button, not shielding young adults from reality by hiding it behind safe spaces, language policing, and censorship.
Television, for all its wonders, is still largely about plot and cleverness. Film is about character and mood. Michael Clayton is a character who gets a wake-up call. It’s not an “oh, wow, they killed off that character” moment, it’s not a clever reveal, it’s not an “instant classic episode.” It isn’t sudden, it isn’t a moment of clarity, it’s a lifetime’s worth. Smuggled in under the cover of mainstream entertainment and paranoid legal ’70s-homage potboiler, this is a meditative film, one that advocates waking up, and not the cheap ID-politics form of “woke,” but a true depth of thought, an earned and adult contemplation of a corporate-controlled world, and a skepticism aimed at the logo’d and branded, at the proliferation of pedantic hive-minded groupthink. Michael Clayton is a work of art that knows we all need a vision quest, that as a country we seek a return to our birthright of the transcendental, a heroic and individualized opposition to corruption, not just eternal adolescence and ahistorical immaturity.
In the film’s closing moments, having negotiated a settlement that will insulate her defendants from financial harm by orchestrating a precise dollar amount that will be paid for by a tax write-off, Karen Crowder smooths out her pantsuit and struts out of the meeting room thinking she’s finally won, until Michael appears like a ghost, the ghost of reality haunting her, the specter she couldn’t kill off. Michael has replaced Arthur. Clayton calls himself Shiva the God of Death, and this is a proper appellation. Not because he has killed off evil or saved the day or achieved a just vengeance or righted all the wrongs. Arthur is dead, so are Anna’s parents and over four hundred others. No, it is an appropriate title because Michael has killed off his old self. Karen crumbles to the floor, Don Jeffries and the UNorth bosses will be arrested and investigated, but the last shot of the film is Michael in the back of a taxi, being asked by the driver “So what are we doing?” and Michael has no idea, no “fix.”
Michael Clayton’s soul might have been redeemed but his future may be bleak. He’s paid off his debts, but he’ll be starting at zero. His law firm will either go belly-up or be trapped in years of legal wrangling over the fees it won’t be collecting from U-North. Clayton ends the film stunned. The guy with all the answers is finally forced into an extended introspective moment, and must move from surviving to thinking, from doing to being. He reaches through the hole in the Plexiglas and hands the cabbie a bill. “Give me fifty dollars worth,” he says. “Just drive.” The exchange of money for services, a transaction. Telling, too, that it is none other than director Tony Gilroy driving the cab at the end, his cameo, piloting the car, director as auteur, as navigator, as captain of the ship. It’s also relevant that Michael is still moving. His journey is not ended. He has vanquished his former self and is now inhabiting a more morally centered but more unsure place. He has taken a divergent path and now needs to realign, to gather himself. Unburdened, he can begin to process what he has undergone. He has answered the summons to conquest but his triumph will not bring Arthur back, nor fetch a lasting and stagnant peace for himself. He has contributed something of value, however. He has explored, exposed, and explained the duplicity of U-North, and there is hope, but this is not a cheer-inspiring vindicated-hero ending, because this is to the end a character study, about a character who has undergone a significant and meaningful change from the beginning of the film to this birth of a new self. The Michael Clayton who ends the film is not the Michael Clayton who begins it. By the end, he has survived an assassination and been reborn, even throwing his identification and his cell phone into the fire of the burning Mercedes. He has transformed himself from a fixer to a mender.
The promotional materials for the film feature a blurry-faced Clooney behind horizontal red bars containing the words “The Truth Can Be Adjusted.” That’s what he did as a fixer, he manipulated the truth. Over the course of the two-hour film, Clayton realizes that he is what needs adjustment, and by the end an adjustment has very much occurred. We hold on Clayton’s face for two full minutes as the cab wends its way through Manhattan and the end credits begin to run with him still on screen. Michael absorbs the enormity of his last few days, and the film ends with silent contemplation for protagonist and audience alike.
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All images are screenshots from the film.