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.