Follow TV Tropes


Film / Michael Clayton

Go To

"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.

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and all three leads nominated. Swinton would win the Best Supporting Actress award.

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 New York State 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.
  • The Atoner: Arthur.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Michael is unassuming and soft-spoken, but he knows very well how to play dirty and, when challenged, he is implacable.
  • 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 antagonist with the most screen time. She's the one who orders the murder of Arthur (and later Michael) without Jeffries' knowledge.
  • 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, when he's threatening Michael not to go to court against him. Later, when Michael is driving on a deserted stretch of road, he notices a small herd grazing on a hill and is reminded of a picture in the book Realm and Conquest, which his son Henry is a fan of, and a copy of which he found in Arthur's house, heavily annotated and marked with highlighter. It contains an illustrations of some horses on a hill that resembles the horses he sees on the crest of the hill. The recurrence of horses makes him get out of the car in wonder and go up the hill to look at the horses, where from the look on his face he's evidently thinking about how his life has turned out—and then his car blows up. Between them, Arthur and Henry save Michael's life.
  • Chekhov's Gun: When Michael brings his son Henry to school, the kid keeps talking about a fantasy novel with a red cover called Realm and Conquest. Later, when Michael goes to retrieve Arthur after his psychotic episode, Henry calls the hotel his dad is staying in over the night and Arthur answers the call. Guess where Arthur will hide an hint to recover a decisive piece of evidence against U-North.
  • Confess in Confidence: Invoked by Karen in her final conversation with Michael with reference to the attorney-client privilege. Handwaved by the latter as after having tried to kill him Karen has lost any right to prevent him to disclose the information he knows.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Don Jeffries. The memo that Arthur found proves that it was him that decided to let a weed killer be put in commerce despite knowing that it was carcinogenic.
  • Deconstruction: Karen and the U-North assassins are not the smooth operators you'd normally see, Karen is a nervous wreck whose ordering of assassinations is less cold-blooded ruthlessness than misguided desperation, and the assassins are plain handymen than suited killers.
  • Default to Good: Several examples.
  • Dramatic Irony: The audience is informed about the U/North memo that reveals the toxicity of their weed killer over an hour before Michael does.
  • 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: The film ends with Michael tricking Karen into doing one of these.
  • 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.
  • Failed a Spot Check: When Michael is hurriedly dispatched to Milwaukee to deal with Arthur’s public mental breakdown during a deposition, Karen has a background check carried out on him. But it is very superficial and barely verifies his employment history and official job description. Karen is amazed that the law firm has sent a guy who is apparently not particularly qualified to deal with such a serious situation, but she does not bother to order a more in-depth search or speak with Marty or other lawyers of the firm to discover more on Michael. She therefore fails to discover that he is the firm’s highly skilled fixer and his (obvious) ties with the law enforcement community until the very end.
  • 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 counsel 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.
    • Even subtler, Michael and Karen are also foils to each other. Both are facing serious stress in their life and on their job (Michael is deeply into debt and he is afraid to be downsized since the law firm he works for is merging with another, while it is implied that Karen will be made a scapegoat if the class action will go wrong), are in charge to deal with shady situations and at the end are facing professional ruin (earlier in the film Marty explicitly stated that Michael’s future in the firm depended upon a successful conclusion of the class action, which is unlikely now that Karen has been arrested for murder). But Michael is the only one to keep his sense of integrity and self-worth intact.
  • Fictional Counterpart: U-North might as well have been called Please-Don't-Sue-Us-Monsanto.
  • Hope Spot: After Michael finally makes the hit-and-run driver he's talking to understand how much trouble he's in, and that in all likelihood, the cops will know within hours what he's done, the guy's phone starts ringing. The man meekly asks "That's the police, isn't it?". Michael tells him "No". . .only to immediately tell him "They don't call."
  • Hollywood Law: The ending is completely dependent on an aversion of this trope in regards to state law. Michael's recording of his conversation with Karen without her knowledge would be illegal and inadmissible in court in some states but not in a one-party consent state like New York.
  • How We Got Here and In Medias Res: The opening sequence is followed by going back four days earlier.
  • Idiot Ball: Karen, don't keep in constant communication with U-North about what they're going to do about Michael (namely, offer him $80k and a three-year contract in return for him signing an NDA about everything he knows about the case) so that you can be reassured that he will be silent. Instead, assume they're going to do nothing and order his death, thereby really getting his attention.
    • Also, the hitmen, who when the bomb in Michael's car finally goes off merely assume that he was in it at the time, and report back to Karen that the job is done.
    • U-North and Don Jefferies and their internal memo: 229 That admits that their weed killer is carcinogenic prior to it going to market. Bonus points to Don Jeffries for signing off on it as well.
  • Ironic Echo: "I am Shiva, the god of death!" The first time is uttered by Arthur during one of his talks with Michael and signals his remorse for having enabled U-North to get away with murdering hundreds of small farmers who used their weed killer without knowing that it is carcinogenic. The second time counts also as a Badass Boast, as it is shouted by Michael after that he has got Karen on tape confessing to U-North’s crimes, bringing down her (and probably the entire company) and avenging Arthur’s 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 in his exchanges with Michael.
    • One of the top partners of the firm revealing that he has a mental condition by undressing and rambling incoherently during a pretrial testimony is bad enough, but the same partner actively searching for evidence that undermines the position of one of the best clients of his law firm in a multibillion-dollar high-profile case and planning to share it with the opposing party? Arthur has committed the most serious breach of the lawyer-client fiduciary relationship that could arguably be conceived note . This is something that would undoubtedly ground a serious malpractice case and immediately destroy the reputation of any law firm, sinking its practice in an heartbeat. Marty has good reasons to be in a panic mode.
    • 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?
    • Mere coincidence. Michael's son Henry is a fan of the book and so is Arthur, who likes Henry and who has late-night phone calls with him. Arthur's bipolar disorder makes him mildly obsessed with the book and his copy of it is heavily highlit and annotated (and is also where he keeps the crucial clue of the copy shop receipt.) Perhaps as a result of this, he uses to Michael the odd phrase You think you got the horses for that? So, when Michael sees some horses in a field that stand in a way that resembles the illustration in the book, he's struck by the coincidence and gets out of his car.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Has Arthur really just gone off his rocker, or has he been summoned to a noble purpose by some higher power? He overtly invites both Michael and the audience to imagine the second possibility when he leaves a message on his hotel room wall before making his escape: "MAKE BELIEVE IT'S NOT JUST MADNESS"
  • 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's 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 an attempt against his life nullifies the NDA and any duty of confidentiality he may have under the lawyer-client relationship, 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.
    • Also the above-mentioned hit-and-run driver. Had he stayed at the scene and called the cops immediately, he might've been cleared of any charges in what was genuinely an accident—he wasn't drunk, speeding, etc. Unfortunately, him fleeing the scene and his desperate attempts to cover up his actions all but guarantees he's going to face some kind of punishment.
  • 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 he is informed that Arthur has stripped naked during a pretrial testimony and another 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 for the firm's corporate clients that the other lawyers would be incapable of handling.
  • Only Sane Man: Marty Bach is this for the U-North/Law firm side as the only one who truly knows both how important Michael is to the company as their 'fixer', with his partner Barry not fully aware what Michael does for the firm and thus suspicious when he makes demands, and Karen Crowder instantly deeming him an unimportant cog and orders him killed.
  • The Oner: The scene where the assassins catch up to Arthur at his apartment.
  • Professional Killer: The two hitmen that U-North secretly has on retainer. They successfully make Arthur's death look like an accident, and attempt to kill Michael with a car bomb. However, they clearly don't resort to murder first, and actually make it clear that their first option is trying to get rid of Arthur through non-lethal means, although ultimately Karen requests that they resort to violence.
  • 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. Even the loan shark Michael meets to bail out Timmy is reasonable and understanding. 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: We can only hope Clayton's kid's parents didn't actually let him watch Neon Genesis Evangelion before getting him an Eva...
  • 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.
  • Trapped by Gambling Debts: Subverted despite Michael being a gambler, it's the mob loans he took out for the restaurant for his brother Timmy who then ruined it, leaving him to take on an $80,000 debt to be paid in a week leading him to sign a NDA with U-North to be silent about Arthur's findings in exchange for 80 grand.
  • 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.
  • Underestimating Badassery: When Karen checks Michael’s background, she is clearly unimpressed, seeing only a mid-level associate who never made it to partner despite working for the same law firm for 15 years. The only time they meet in person before the end she treats him coldly and quickly leaves. She realizes her mistake only when Michael tricks her into confessing on tape, ruining her and the whole U-North company.
  • 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.
  • The Voice: Tom McCarthy, the actor/director, plays the associate who calls Michael on the phone at the beginning of the movie to get him to see the client involved in the hit-and-run (see Never My Fault above).
  • Wham Line: Michael, to Karen: "You're so fucked."
  • Wham Shot: Michael getting the box of papers that Arthur had made before his death and seeing the U/North memo inside.
  • 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.