The central character is Michael Clayton (George Clooney), a "fixer" at a major Manhattan law firm. His job entails him cleaning up other's messes, not litigating in a court room. He hates the work, but the senior partner at the firm, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), wants him to stay in the job because he has a talent for it. Things are not rosy for Michael right now: his addict brother has run a business venture that Michael was a partner in into the ground, leaving Michael with thousands of dollars in debt; his relationship with his ex-wife is on the rocks, and into this environment comes a whole new caliber of problem: Michael's friend, and fellow attorney, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), who is a lead attorney for a major case for the firm involving U/North, a huge, multifaceted corporation, has discovered evidence damning to U/North, and has also, seemingly, lost his senses.
Arthur begins plotting to publicly expose U/North with this evidence, thereby destroying them, something that U/North's lead corporate attorney, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), cannot allow. Michael is called in to help calm Arthur and bring the situation under control, but it becomes quickly obvious that Arthur cannot be reigned in, and Karen begins looking at far more dire methods of containment.
When you walk into Michael Clayton, you need to be prepared for a limited amount of action, and a fair amount of talk. It is a film about words and far less exciting events than found in many movies. Michael Clayton is also not the most straightforwardly plotted film. A great deal of information is suggested through inference and requires the full attention of the audience. But Michael Clayton is hardly boring. It delves into the decisions that individuals make when their livelihood depends on living in a moral quagmire. Michael is a man who is concerned about making sure that he can make the payments on a huge debt and dealing with the sometimes annoying and reprehensible people that the law firm provides its services to. Arthur is in a similar situation, but he can no longer live with himself and the protection of clients who are obviously guilty. It is debatable whether Arthur is mentally unhinged, or simply woken up to the reality of his actions and what they mean in the grander scheme of things.
Michael Clayton is the directorial debut of Tony Gilroy, a longtime Hollywood screenwriter, who crafts a film that manages to keep you involved like a good thriller without providing many of the requisite elements: chases, shootouts and fisticuffs. Michael Clayton is a thriller that works at a slower pace, but still manages to enthrall with its developments. Critical to the film's success is its performances. George Clooney gives us a Michael who feels many aspects of his world closing around him and tries to keep all the balls in the air. Tom Wilkinson's turn as Arthur is that of a man who has experienced an epiphany, seeing the world like a newborn baby. Finally, Tilda Swinton's Karen Crowder is a woman who is all about appearance (one of her first scenes reveals her practicing a speech so that it will appear perfect) and ensuring that no one rocks the boat of U/North. She has sold her soul to the devil and will do anything to keep the company intact.
Michael Clayton is certainly not everyone's cup of tea. It requires a strong attention span and a willingness to not have everything spelled out for you. If you can provide that, then it is a film experience that will provide some rewards.