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Film / Michael Clayton

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"The truth can be adjusted."

A 2007 legal thriller starring George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, and Sydney Pollack. It is the directorial debut of screenwriter Tony Gilroy, best known for the The Bourne Series.

It centers on Michael Clayton (Clooney), a "fixer" — a person who solves difficult situations by tampering with the legal system — at the New York City law firm Kenner, Bach, & Ledeen. Clayton finds himself embroiled in a case involving his mentally-unstable colleague, Arthur Edens (Wilkinson), and the agricultural conglomerate his firm is representing in a class-action lawsuit.


This film provides examples of:

  • Amoral Attorney: Deconstructed and subverted throughout.
    • Karen fits this to a tee in what she does on the job, but that job leaves her highly neurotic and edgy.
    • Marty (the managing partner of the firm) has a line that sums this trope up perfectly: "This case reeked from day one. Fifteen years in and I got to tell you how we pay the rent?"
    • Arthur is an example of this who starts off the movie with a Heel–Face Turn.
    • And the main arc of the movie is Michael doing the same turn.
  • Arc Symbol: Horses.
  • Armor-Piercing Question:
    Michael Clayton: I'm not the enemy.
    Arthur Edens: Then who are you?
  • Armor-Piercing Response: Michael's bosses want Arthur to be committed, but Michael knows that, legally, having someone involuntarily committed in the state of New York is not easy.
    Marty Bach: You know what? We’ve got six hundred attorneys in this building. Let’s find out which one of them knows the most about psychiatric commitment statutes.
    Michael Clayton: I can tell you that right now. It’s Arthur.
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  • The Atoner: Arthur.
  • Big Bad: Don Jeffries, the corrupt CEO of U-North, even though he appears more as minor character in the film. Karen, who's more The Dragon to Jeffries, is the antangonist with the most screen time. She's the one who orders the murder of Arthur (and later Michael) without Jeffries' knowledge.
  • California Doubling: In a minor way within the New York metropolitan area. The film suggests that all the action outside the city takes place in Westchester County. However, the railroad bridge where he stops and admires the horses is the Moodna Viaduct in Orange County, twice as far away from the city and on the other side of the Hudson River. Some other scenes were also filmed nearby.
  • Call-Back: Arthur uses an Unusual Euphemism- "You think you got the horses for that?" to stand in for guts or something of the like. Later when Michael is driving on a deserted stretch of road, he notices a small herd grazing on a hill and is reminded of Arthur. Arthur's comment inadvertently saves Michael's life. Ditto for the "blink and you'll miss it" horse grazing on a hill in the book Realm and Conquest.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: U-North.
  • Default to Good: Several examples.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Michael essentially has to cash in his career, and quite possibly the firm he works for, to do the right thing.
  • Engineered Public Confession
  • External Combustion: Double Subversion: We see all the usual car-focus foreshadowing, then nothing happens. Later on, the car suddenly explodes while Michael happens to not be in it, and we don't find out until the end of the film that he was being tailed by hitmen with a remote detonator.
  • Foil:
    • Gene, Michael's older brother. The scene at his house says it all:
      • He's a cop; Michael is a lawyer.
      • He's a straight arrow; Michael is just shy of being a crook.
      • He's a family man and caregiver; Michael is a divorced dad who sees his son on weekends, and takes care of his crooked clients instead of his family.
      • He lives in a split-level in north Jersey; Michael haunts the bars and high-rises of Manhattan.
      • Most importantly, Gene is grounded and content in his modest life, whereas Michael is beset with alienation, ennui, and frustrated ambition.
    • Timmy, Michael's younger brother, is another foil: a relapsed addict (alcohol, whereas Michael's vice is gambling) whose life has completely fallen apart. Gene is who Michael wishes he were; Timmy is who he's afraid he might become.
    • To a smaller extent, Karen and Arthur are foils to each other. Both are legal council to U-North, are both buckling under the stress of their jobs. While Arthur's stress and guilt leads to a Heel–Face Turn, Karen's stress leads to her taking dangerously drastic measures to protect her client.
  • Fictional Counterpart: U-North might as well have been called Please-Don't-Sue-Us-Monsanto.
  • How We Got Here and In Medias Res: The opening sequence is followed by going back four days earlier.
  • Ironic Echo: "I am Shiva, the god of death!"
  • Ivy League for Everyone: Averted, since the main character is a graduate of St. John's University and Fordham Law School.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Marty, when Michael says he's tired of being a fixer and wants to return to litigation.
    Michael: I was good at it!
    Marty: So are a lot of people. At this, at what you do, you're great. For Chrissakes, Michael, you've got something everybody wants: you have a niche.
  • Karma Houdini: the hitmen are never captured onscreen.
  • Leave the Camera Running: The end credits scene of Michael in the back of a cab.
  • Love Makes You Crazy: Arthur Edens apparently had a crush on one of the plaintiffs in the class-action suit. This convinces him to stop his meds.
  • Love Redeems: Arthur's love for one of the plaintiffs caused him to change and later supply evidence that could bring the company down.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Well, like a suicide.
  • Magic Realism: The scene with the horses: it comes directly from an illustration from Michael's son's fantasy book and it saves Michael from the car bomb. Divine intervention?
  • Murder Is the Best Solution: Crazy lawyer? Sleuthing friend? Best call in a hitman!
  • My God, What Have I Done?
    • Arthur experienced this upon realizing he was defending a horrifically guilty client. Marty' face seems to evoke this when he hears about Michael's apparent death.
  • Never My Fault: The man Michael is called to assist at the beginning of the film is this. Also a Jerkass. He ran down a jogger and left the scene of the accident, and when Michael arrives he starts blaming the street lights, the dark, the rain, the jogger, etc. Anyone but himself. Even his wife is clearly fed up with his bullshit and Michael is obviously struggling to keep from rolling his eyes while listening to the asshole talk. Michael cuts through his bullshit and starts making plans to call a criminal lawyer because he knows the guy is fucked. The police work closely with body shops and car repair places, and due to how exclusive the neighborhood is, they aren't going to have any trouble running the guy down. The guy finally realizes this and suggests that he just report the car as stolen, but Michael doesn't even acknowledge this suggestion because he knows it won't work. The idiot's phone records will be used as evidence in court, and all the calls he made to multiple lawyers instead of the police will torpedo any such stolen car story.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain!: Karen ordered the hit on Michael, because he saw Arthur’s incriminating memo. But Michael had already been effectively bribed by his own firm to stay quiet, even being forced to sign a Non-Disclosure agreement. The attempted car bombing ends up giving Michael an escape, as his "death" nullifies the NDA, and gives him the opportunity to bring down both the firm and U-North. Michael pretty much lampshades this for Karen in their final conversation.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: Arthur.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • Karen gets two massive ones in the same scene. First when Michael - whom she believes is dead - confronts her in the hotel. Then again when she realizes Michael was wearing a wire and just incriminated herself for a long list of crimes.
    • Michael gets one when his car is blown up.
  • Omnidisciplinary Lawyer: Subverted. Michael's specialty at the firm is using his contacts and experience from his past as a prosecutor to mitigate occasional problems with the criminal-justice system the firm's corporate clients that the other lawyers would be incapable of handling.
  • The Oner: The scene where the assassins catch up to Arthur at his apartment.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: Basically the point of the film. Kenner, Bach, & Ledeen profits off of protecting Punch Clock Villains like the insidious U-North corporation, to the point that Arthur's guilt finally gets the better of him. Karen Crowder is put in the position of protecting U-North and resorts to assassination. The assassins themselves are respectable business-types who take jobs while teeing off at the country club. Everyone is simply doing their job. In case we miss it, the opening scenes have Michael clocking in with his ID badge on the way to work.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Arthur to the fullest.
  • Shout-Out: I hope Clayton's kid's parents didn't actually let him watch Neon Genesis Evangelion before getting him an Eva...
  • The Spock: Michael Clayton.
  • Stepford Smiler: Karen must arduously construct her aura of confidence. Scenes cut back and forth between the poised professional she seems to be on the job and the nervous wreck she is behind the scenes.
  • Those Two Bad Guys: Verne and Iker, the assassins Karen calls in to contain the scandal.
  • To Be Lawful or Good: Arthur, then Michael.
  • Trouble Entendre: In a very vague discussion between Karen and one of her spies, it gets so confusing for the spy that he outright asks if she wants him to kill Arthur Edens or not; the whole scene is incredibly chilling.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Literally, as Karen begins to fall apart while Clayton berates her, then starts shaking like a leaf and outright collapses to the floor as her crimes are revealed and the police move in to arrest her, to the point where they actually hold off on cuffing her because they fear she might need medical attention.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Michael's cop brother calls him out after he sneaks into Arthur's apartment:
    You've got all these cops thinking you're a lawyer, and you've got all these lawyers thinking you're some kind of cop. You've got everybody fooled, don't you? Except you. You know exactly what you are.


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