Instead of Star Wars or Marvel movies, the biggest movie heroes of the 1990s were lawyers. Legal thrillers became massive hits, where lawyers battled corrupt systems to find some form of justice. The trend peaked, or jumped the shark, with 1997 The devil’s lawyera film in which Lucifer himself runs a law firm.
The devil’s lawyer it was all grandstanding and screaming, an epic drama of good versus evil that unfolded in courtrooms and boardrooms. When the film’s co-writer, Tony Gilroy, researched real law firms, he said filmmakers magazine that he was “really shocked by the lack of representation of a real law firm in the film… when you go to a law firm to shoot a location at 3 in the morning, it’s shocking: there are three or four lights in each floor and some poor person buried under the paper. It’s not pretty people and it’s not a pretty atmosphere, it’s really a routine.”
Research for the bombastic Devil’s lawyer eventually led to Gilroy’s directorial debut a decade later, Michael Clayton. It is a legal thriller that is different from The devil’s lawyer in all possible ways. Michael Clayton it’s a slow burn movie with no blacks and whites, just a gray world where even sharks are drowning.
Clayton (George Clooney) is a lawyer whose best days are behind him. He works at a high-end corporate firm, but he’s not the type to make decisions or lead litigation. His colleagues tell clients that he works miracles, but he thinks of himself as more of a janitor. He cleans up for messy clients, people who make mistakes at 3 am when his regular lawyers are on vacation.
He has connections all over New York, but he’s not particularly happy with his lot in life. He tried to invest in a bar with his brother, but the bar failed. So he gambles his life away in backroom poker games. He doesn’t have much of a purpose until one of the firm’s top lawyers, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has a complete mental breakdown in the middle of a deposition.
Michael Clayton it begins with a car exploding in the middle of a country road, as Michael admires some horses. He then flashes back four days earlier to see what happened. For the past six years, Michael and Arthur’s firm has been handling the case of United Northfield, renamed U-North, an agribusiness company accused of manufacturing a deadly fertilizer.
Arthur, who has a history of mental instability, has a sudden crisis of conscience and strips naked in the workplace. He has stopped taking his medication and has begun to ramble about losing all purpose in life. The U-North case, in particular a lawsuit involving a girl named Anna (Merritt Weaver), has become overwhelming for him.
Michael is sent to clean up Arthur’s mess. Along the way, he tangles with U-North’s chief legal officer, Karen (Tilda Swinton), who is furious at the company’s breakup. As Michael begins to filter the lies and truths behind Arthur’s sudden changes, he finds himself in a state of confusion.
Michael Clayton It is a film that requires careful attention. Its plot gets tangled up in legal jargon that can get confusing if you’re staring at your phone for a couple of minutes. Why is Michael’s boss Marty (legendary director Sydney Pollack, whose work greatly influenced the style of this movie) mad at him again? What is he trying to win? At its most basic level, Michael Clayton it’s mostly people in rooms talking to each other.
But Michael Clayton deeply rewards the viewer willing to spend time with him. Gilroy’s first film couldn’t be further from The devil’s lawyer in its muted colors and characters with incredibly normal and depressing lives. The film refuses to find a moral center, letting the excellent performances of Clooney and Wilkinson triumph.
The weight of Clayton’s world is laid bare on Clooney’s face, completely removed from the carefree life of Ocean’s Eleven. Arthur is the mirror of him, out of control and feeling joy for the first time in decades. This is an actor’s movie, and everyone is operating at their highest levels. Even Pollack has a scene-stealing performance.
Like a movie of pure tension, an anti-legal thriller, Michael Clayton It is one of the best of the century.
Michael Clayton airs on HBO Max through September 30.