“This is not an episode,” declares Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson). What he’s feeling, he continues, is far more pernicious and pervasive than the madness with which he’s been diagnosed: “I’m suddenly consumed with the overwhelming sensation that I’m covered with some sort of filth,” he says, while you see sequential images of profound, distinctly corporate alienation (an endless high-rise hallway, fluorescent lights, a lone janitor). Arthur’s voice presses forward: to escape this “patina of shit,” he says, something must be done: “It must stand the test of time, and the time is now.”
Arthur’s speech, at once excruciating and abstract, comprises the first moments of Michael Clayton, then turns up again later, echoing as he descends into seeming insanity. Even if he is, quite literally, off his meds, Arthur is also possessed of insight and a desperate morality. A partner in a high-powered law firm, Arthur has discovered a truth concerning a class action suit brought against one of their biggest clients, U/North. The suit has to do with victims of toxic weed killer manufactured by U/North, and Arthur imagines himself in love with Anna (Merritt Wever), a very sad, very vulnerable, and very wholesomely Midwestern claimant in the suit.
When Arthur declares his love and strips himself naked during Anna’s deposition, his firm — headed by his longtime friend Marty (Sydney Pollack) — must figure out a way to proceed. Marty turns to their fixer, Michael (George Clooney), while U/North dumps the problem into the lap of its in-house counsel, Karen (Tilda Swinton). It soon comes to light that Arthur is in possession of a damning document; his disappearance following the aborted deposition sets in motion parallel efforts to find him and deal with the evidence against U/North.
At its simplest level, Michael Clayton is a tour de force of crosscutting between these efforts, as Karen and Michael do their research and follow their hunches, deal with unsavory characters and reveal their frailties. As a thriller, Tony Gilroy’s film is mostly crisp and efficient, intersecting flash-forwards and regrets. But its more compelling strength lies in its poetic inclinations, its meditation on the ways that money, politics, and fear shape moral choices.
Michael’s decisions are framed in multiple contexts. His friendship with and sincere admiration for Arthur make him question the cruel urgency of the clean-up mission. At the same time, his own recent financial crisis, brought on in part by a brother whose addiction destroyed their joint venture in a restaurant, impels him to complete that mission — he needs the cash Marty can guarantee. Still, he’s plainly tired of playing fixer. It’s a job that demands suspension of ethical concerns as well as fast thinking and effective threatening. He’s very good at all of it, but it’s taken a toll. This is indicated indirectly and resoundingly by an early scene that has Michael speeding along a road at dawn, frustrated by his latest minor assignment (a hit and run accident committed by one of the firm’s “huge” clients). Frustrated by the meeting (“I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor”), Michael pulls over when he spots a clutch of horses atop a grassy hill. As he makes his way to them, pausing just to hear them breathe, the air fresh and the morning light faint, Michael looks almost at peace.
The moment is brief, pristine, lovely. And it’s also tremendously sad, a bit of potential that speaks to all the loss Michael feels, regarding his family: in addition to the addict, he’s got a brother who’s a New York City detective and young, trusting son who lives with his ex-wife and her new husband. In Arthur’s case, Michael finds a chance for redemption, but that too will be hard, perhaps not even possible. Determined to protect Arthur from himself — as well as Marty, who brooks no weaknesses — Michael tracks him down with diligence and precision, only to be stumped by his friend’s newly emerged conscience. Standing on a sidewalk outside Arthur’s downtown apartment, Michael can only listen, his eyes wide as his friend and onetime mentor assures him that everything either one of them has done professionally has been wrong. (Both Wilkinson and Clooney are superb, especially in these close, tipping-point moments.)
And yet: as mesmerizing as Michael’s journey is throughout the film, and as much as the film is focused on his essential masculine recovery, Karen’s plot is equally compelling. In part this is because of Swinton, brilliant and chilling as a woman who is so focused on proving herself worthy in this man’s world that she can’t imagine how out of her depth she is. But Karen’s story is also riveting because of the light it casts on that world. As she rehearses her speeches for U/North clients and her creepily self-confident boss, Dan (Ken Howard), dries her armpits in a corporate ladies’ room or lays out her suit on a hotel room bed and smooths her pantyhose, she’s both resolute and clueless.
If Michael feels that he owes everything to everyone he’s let down, if he must reckon with his own failures in order to be able to face his son, Karen is alone, again and again. The film frames their very different concerns in arresting shadows and repeated doorways, neither finding comfort or concord, no matter their movie-style “wins” or “losses.”