How Michael Clayton Presaged 2017

Ten years after the film’s release, the world has caught up to its bleak vision.

Dushan Milic

One of the disorientations of where we’re at—the obliterative sucking splotch of a present tense in which we now all live—is that it feels simultaneously like a malign mischance and like something we should have seen coming a mile off. For decades the poets have been sobbing, the screenwriters having nightmares, and the canaries in the coal mine toppling stoically from their perches. Works of art that seemed, at the time, to be merely broody or frazzled now appear darkly predictive—pregnant with prophecy, some of them. All the signs point to here. So how to mark this rather subterranean anniversary, 10 years after the release of a very, very good movie? Perhaps by saying that it is becoming a classic before our eyes, because things are even more Michael Clayton now than they were when Michael Clayton first came out.

Want Trumptown 2017, a grinning Babylon of grift, pelf, and payola, with everybody mortgaged to everybody, and everything else—marriages, bank accounts, moral systems, nervous systems, reasons for living—burned out? Here it is. Recall if you will George Clooney, in the titular role, driving too fast on predawn country roads. His face is heavy, so heavy. Existence is choking him. Despair is on his tongue and in the black basins of his Clooney eyes. He looks like a man who woke up depressed, in that state (you know that state) where every thought has a dripping, downward-dragging tendency. In fact, he hasn’t slept at all. Abruptly he pulls over, climbs out of his Mercedes, and sets off up a grassy hillside, slightly dizzy-looking in his flapping shroud of a dark corporate suit, as if in the wake of a catastrophe … How did he—how did we—get here?

Michael Clayton has been working for 17 years for a sprawling, devouring New York law firm called Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. He was a lawyer once, but he’s not really a lawyer anymore. Now he’s some kind of shady threshold guardian, a sorter-out of difficulties. Get yourself in a jam, any kind of jam, and you call Michael Clayton. Miracle worker, say some; fixer, janitor, bagman, say others. His medium, his material, is human frailty, the near end of original sin, and the tools of his trade are the glad hand, the scratched back, the padded envelope, the cut corner, and the jumped line. (“Super job, Elston,” Clayton says to a Milwaukee police officer who’s just done him a favor. “You get to New York, you need tickets to a game—or anything—you let me know.”) He is immensely charming, although—because he is being played by George Clooney—his charm is a strange burden, a thickening of aura, almost a physical weight upon him.

In the city, anxiety reigns, debt stacked upon debt. The restaurant/bar that Clayton owned with his brother Timmy has gone belly-up—as has Timmy, an addict—and a loan shark wants $75,000 from him, today. Kenner, Bach & Ledeen is teeter-tottering on the edge of a huge merger. Out in the heartland, meanwhile, milking its cows and getting cancer, subsists that other American population: the perpetually screwed. Kenner, Bach & Ledeen has been defending the agri-monster U/North, producer of a weed killer that also—less efficiently, but no less finally—kills human beings, in a class-action suit brought on behalf of many poisoned, ailing, and bereaved rural families. Tilda Swinton plays Karen Crowder, U/North’s in-house counsel: ultra-accomplished, merciless, shallow-breathing, at an agonizing pitch of tension. Her head swivels in birdlike terror.

And now Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), the firm’s lead attorney on the U/North case, has gone rogue. Gone bananas. He’s off his meds. He’s high on the truth. Illumined by mania, gnashing with conviction, he sees it all:

I realized, Michael, that I had emerged not through the doors of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen, not through the portals of our vast and powerful law firm, but from the asshole of an organism whose sole function is to excrete the, the, the, the poison, the ammo, the defoliant necessary for other larger, more powerful organisms to destroy the miracle of humanity.

Is Arthur insane? Not at all. His perceptions have a fine, religious clarity. Pierce the everyday, deepen your sense of reality, and the firm of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen is a giant, squatting, toxin-squirting organism. We live surrounded by—ruled by—just such giant, squatting, toxin-squirting organisms.

All right. Pause. Breathe. It taxes my reviewerly brain to try to synopsize this movie, because the real mysteries, it turns out, are not the ones you don’t or can’t understand, but the ones that endlessly, bottomlessly disclose meaning. They increase in relevance. And Michael Clayton is mysterious like that: better today than it was in 2007. Writer-director Tony Gilroy is a Hollywood paradox: a visionary journeyman, a machinist-poet who churned through many entertainments, including the original Jason Bourne trilogy, on his way to Michael Clayton. The earlier work holds hints and presagings. In The Devil’s Advocate, Satan (Al Pacino) runs a great big Manhattan law firm, sucking nice young attorneys skyward on backdrafts of temptation, up into the infernal spires and the penthouses of Tartarus. And Jason Bourne, amnesiac hit man, is a very pure existential cipher—a man on the run, profoundly alone, surveilled by demons, desperate to discover who he is and how he was made. But there’s no lively, twinkling Satan/Pacino in Michael Clayton, no CIA master villain. Evil is not an active principle in this universe; it is a sluggish compound of evasion, appetite, and self-interest. It gathers around your ankles.

Michael Clayton is a great film because underneath the stylishness, the performances, the dialogue, and the closed-circuit plotting, underneath everything that got it nominated for seven Academy Awards, is the mute, heaven-pummeling, gaping-like-a-baby unformed vowel of a human soul crying out. Let’s return to that hillside where Clayton exited his Mercedes. In the gray light, he climbs the pasture. Halfway up the slope, three horses are standing: sculpturally still, casually composed in a perfect triptych of horsitude. Clayton stops, wobbles slightly. The horses watch him, three velvety dinosaur heads scanning this end-of-his-rope man with a balance of priestly inquiry and animal indifference. They breathe, they nod, incense of horse-exhalation in the cool air. He breathes, he nods. Something is exchanged. Something is understood. Something is absolved. Something is released. Behind him, in a gassy wallop of flame, his car explodes. The horses wheel and take off, with the air of having suddenly remembered a superior engagement. And Clayton, understanding after a few seconds of confusion that somebody just tried to kill him, blunders back down to the blazing vehicle and clumsily, hastily, tosses into it his watch, his wallet, whatever is in his pockets.

“I am Shiva, the god of death.” So says Arthur, manic and glaring, to Michael Clayton. And so says Clayton, post-horses, with cosmic irony, to U/North’s CEO. The law does its work, finally, in Michael Clayton. It mops up the corruption. The system functions. Society holds. But for the individual, for Michael Clayton, there has been a reckoning. Conflagration, transformation. The film ends on an extended shot of Clayton’s face as he rides in the back of a cab, doleful and emptied-out, redeemed and ashen, jolting through the lumps and craters of Manhattan. We’re all implicated, all coated in psychic slime like Arthur Edens, and each one of us has world-reversing power. So when you feel Shiva’s heat, when the cleansing, incinerating moment comes, seize it. Give the trappings of your identity to the flames. Throw your wallet into the exploding car. Burn it up, and be renewed.