Responsible for the screenplays of the Jason Bourne movies, Armageddon and Proof of Life, Michael Clayton is the first directorial effort by Tony Gilroy. Gilroy guides the movie through the morass of Michael Clayton's life, through the minefield of choices he has to make, moral or otherwise.
There's no play here. There's no angle, there's no champagne room. I'm not a miracle worker, I'm a janitor. The math on this is simple, the smaller the mess, the easier it for me to clean up.
Tom Wilkinson has already shown his maniacal self in Batman Returns but sustaining this lunacy as the manic depressive Arthur Edens for a role that is the crux of Michael Clayton is sheer genius. Arthur Edens as part of the lawfirm Kenner, Back and Ledeen's, has been has been consumed by the UNorth class action lawsuit worth $3 billion, litigating it for years and years racking up thousands upon dollars of billable hours, and the case has seemingly driven him over the edge. During a deposition recorded on videotape, Edens doffs his clothes while shouting at the top of his lungs, "I am Shiva, the god of death!" and is subsequently arrested in Atlanta for running naked through a parking lot. His strange actions threaten to jeopardize the defence case presented by Kenner, Back and Ledeen's. Michael Clayton is brought into the case of fix things. Imagine Clayton's surprise that in a sparring confrontation between the two in the jail cell, where Clayton is trying to get through to Edens, reminding him he is famous and works for one of the most famous lawfirms in the world, but has just refused to take his medication, when Clayton says, "You are a manic depressive" and Edens retorns "I am Shiva, the god of death!"
Edens has taken to calling the plaintiffs, including a girl he has taken a fancy to and almost makes the case for them. Edens is crazy but still whip smart. In vying with and against George Clooney in Michael Clayton Wilkinson has given the leverage and support for George Clooney to play his role for real - with the compassion, the concern, yet looking out for number one. There is an obvious bond between Edens and Clayton from their years of being in the firm, his admiration for his career and their friendship, their understanding of their role as the janitors. Clayton tries to save Edens from his derangement shown in his blissful state, yet the brilliance beneath surfaces for a moment.
Tilda Swinton gives another immaculate performace as the agricultural giant UNorth's chief counsel Karen Crowder - the corporation has hired Kenner, Back and Ledeen to settle the civil lawsuit over one of its products which is causing cancer in the farm community - a nervous type who seems way over her head - working and practicing her lines in front of a mirror over and over and definitely way beyond her capacity when she decides upon "the other way" when she panics over Eden's actions. She only meets Michael Clayton twice in the pivotal scenes of the movie, but the power of personality of Michael Clayton sways her to less than wholesome decisions and actions. She sets a trail of investigators to monitor Edens and Clayton.
The other way is the other way.
Michael Clayton with his knowledge of the law can fix situations for clients trying to get out of a sticky situation, but he cannot seem to adjust his own life back on track. George Clooney plays it straight, no swagger, embracing all the weariness of a career that has derailed, but his outward charm and assuredness leads his contacts to help him out in sticky situations, and his clients to feel that he can fix anything. His life has gone nowhere with few redeeming features save for a son he is raising on his own who is into fantasy books including Realm and Conquer whose pages of philosophy assauage Edens. Clayton's own nest egg is gone trying to pay off the debts on a restaurant with his brother Timmy who has gone off the rails, shake off a gambling problem, and the firm that is counting on him to fix the mess takes his request for an eighty thousand dollar loan to clear his financial problem as a shakedown by his boss Marty Bach, played superbly by Academy Award winning director and actor Sidney Sheldon. Clayton has been with the Kenner, Back and Ledeen for years, but never made partner, and has been out of the trial court for years. He bears the burden of being a janitor. In the eyes of the bosses of the firm, fixing is what Michael Clayton does best. When he discovers for himself the documents of Arthur Edens, and a legal document numbered #229 that shows the culpability of UNorth, Michael Clayton has to make a choice.
I am not the guy you kill, I'm the guy you hire. I'm the fixer.
This corporate thriller takes place over the short span of four days, but bears the scars that years of being a janitor has taken on Michael Clayton. Michael Clayton is in a world where there is no room for ambivalence - yet the uncertain ending still portrays an ambiguous future for Michael Clayton.