I was recently asked about the scene where George Clooney as Michael Clayton stops off by the side of the road on what is surely one of the worst days of his life and takes a moment to regard three beautiful free-range horses. I’ll get to that later, but let me lead by saying it’s my single favorite scene in the film.
Before we get there though, let’s talk of what Michael Clayton is about. Clayton (played by George Clooney in his finest performance), is a corporate fixer. We learn he was once a promising lawyer who joined a firm and became the guy who cleaned up the mess of the firm’s clients. Worse than that, he has a gambling problem, and the restaurant he opened with his drug-addicted brother has gone under, and he’s in hock to some serious thumb-breakers.
And that’s before we get to the meat of the plot. Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton is one of those highly-esteemed films that somehow still feels undervalued. It’s not just good, it’s even better than that.
The film centers around a company named U/North that has created and successfully marketed a weed killer that causes cancer. Clayton’s firm represents U/North and their best lawyer, Arthur Deeds (a spectacular Tom Wilkinson), has gone off his manic-depressive meds, and in a moment of clarity, decides to sink U/North or die trying.
Unfortunately, U/North is willing to abide. The company’s in-house attorney (an Oscar winning Tilda Swinton) Karen Crowder is suffering from her own crisis. Her loyalty to the company is making her physically ill. Swinton’s Crowder is first seen sweating through her clothes, dealing with an extraordinary level of anxiety, and her best efforts to keep up a professional public façade hinges on her ability to make the corporate crimes go away. The whole movie finds Crowder having a dark night of the soul, and her willingness to put morals and ethics above careerism will not lead her to the light.
While many of those surrounding Arthur dismiss him as crazy (and they’re not entirely wrong), it’s fair to say that his ragged insanity is meeting U/North’s buttoned-up corporate insanity on something approaching a rational level. U/North is knowingly causing cancer in rural areas. Is Arthur’s meltdown where he blows up a legal meeting by taking off all his clothes worse than that? Hardly.
Michael Clayton is certainly no one-man show, but the entire film hinges on Clooney’s ability to balance his personal and professional issues with equal actorly capacity. To make matters worse, those two concerns conjoin through Arthur who is Clayton’s best friend. I’ve always thought that Clooney has been at his best when playing characters who are in over their head, whether it’s the full-on comedy of O Brother Where Art Thou? or his more than a little goofy thief in Out of Sight.
But here, Clooney’s Michael Clayton is up to his hips in a deadly serious drama. It can be easy to think that Clooney makes it, well, look easy on film, but I think that’s deeply unfair. For the entirety of the film, Clayton is juggling multiple competing interests while quietly, perhaps imperceptibly, rediscovering his soul.
Arthur, in all his extroverted madness has reclaimed his. Karen, in all her bottled-up desire to retain control over circumstances that become more and more clearly beyond her, chooses to set her soul aside. It’s Clayton who has a stronger mental core (after 15 years of being a corporate fixer, his skin has thickened), and you can see him inching towards a choice of integrity over cruel corporate earnings.
One of the many pleasures of Gilroy’s script is the razor-sharp dialogue. When one client of the firm is on the edge of arrest for a hit-and-run, he complains to Clayton that he was promised a “miracle worker” by the firm’s head partner (a terrific Sidney Pollack), Clayton replies, “He misspoke. I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor.” And in this situation, there isn’t a big enough mop to clean up this mess.
All of this leads to a bit of sleight of hand by Clayton during the film’s climax when he and Karen face each other down just outside of a corporate board meeting where she is negotiating a settlement that will protect the company and minimize the financial damage to U/North. Karen walks out of the meeting alone and relieved. She’s done it, she thinks. She pulled it out. Even if in doing so it required her ordering the murder of Arthur (carried out with chilling efficiency by the company henchmen).
But as Karen turns back towards the door, she finds Clayton standing there, holding a bound memo full of damning evidence. She asks Clayton what he wants. He says, “Ten million.” When Karen says ten would be difficult, Clayton asks, “Does it look like I’m negotiating!” Karen agrees to ten. “You’re so fucked,” Clayton replies, and the look of terror on Karen’s face is truly something to be seen. “You don’t want the money?” she says with a quiver.
She soon finds out just how serious the trap is that has been laid for her. As Clayton walks away, Karen’s boss asks, “Who are you?” To which Clayton replies by repeating a line spoken by Arthur earlier in the film while in a manic state, “I am Shiva the God of death!” It’s only a slight exaggeration.
Now, about those horses. We see Clayton in a flash forward at the beginning of the film making that stop, wandering over to those horses. Why? There is no explicit explanation. I suppose the most cynical of us would say that it was a convenient plot choice to keep Clayton alive when his car is blown up by the same men who murdered Arthur.
But I see it another way. Here is a man whose whole life is teetering on some miserable brink, and as he drives away from the house of the well-heeled hit-and-run driver, with all of his terribly weighty problems strapped to his back like a sixty pound stone, he takes a moment to regard something grand. These three magnificent stallions who seem to have appeared out of the mist. Clayton’s world is so ugly and full of malfeasance, that this one moment with these graceful equines is something he can have, just for himself, if only for a moment.
If one were to simplify Michael Clayton down to its most bare essentials, you might say it’s about three people faced with extraordinary moral dilemmas. One chooses a loud and righteous path and for it, meets his death. Another chooses a darker road, and is left crumpled to the ground. And finally, one stops to look at horses, and so he lives to be seen over one of the finest end credit sequences in film history.
In the end, beauty has its way.