Michael Clayton (2007)

Published: Jun 22, 2009 |Updated: Sep 13, 2023


This is the dark thriller about the “fixer” Michael Clayton. He is the guy who cleans up the mess after the rich and reckless clients of his lawfirm employer have screwed up. Now, fate is about to give him a challenge for which he is not prepared, and his truth-defying skills will be pushed to their limits. And as he will soon find out, after having spent a small lifetime making problems disappear into shadows, his redemption now depends on bringing the biggest of them all into the light.

Genre Thriller
Production year 2007
Director Tony Gilroy
Male actors George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Sydney Pollack

Cheating truth comes at a price

Michael Clayton is a dark and sinister thriller set in the world surrounding the successful New York law firm Kenner, Bach & Ledeen. As the movie opens, they are on their sixth year battling a class action lawsuit filed against their client U-North – a major agrochemical company and the manufacturer of the lethal fertilizer Culcitate. At the helm of the operation is Kenner, Bach & Ledeen’s senior litigating partner Arthur Edens – who has seemingly just gone insane. Karen Crowder, U-North’s legal councel is extremely concerned.

Enter Michael Clayton, the company “fixer” – or the janitor as he likes to refer to himself – who moves silently in shadows, helping things “go away” when the rich and reckless fuck up. Michael’s world is one where ethics is the first sacrifice on the way to power for those lustful enough to reach for it. It is a dark realm where standing responsible for your actions is an inconvenience that can be solved, as long as the retainer is of the right magnitude.

Meltdown in the wake of immorality

This world has taken its toll. Michael is a weary man, with a drawn and haggard face. His best days are in the past, and there is a subtle feeling of despair spreading its clammy fingers around his increasingly fragile existence. His escape plan of starting a restaurant with his brother Tim has fallen apart due to Tim’s alcoholism, and now he is faced with the undesirable task of setting things right with a dangerous loan shark whom the failed business owns $75.000.

Michael wants out of this world, this cesspit of immorality on the shadow side of existence, but given his circumstances, he has been forced even closer to the heart of darkness.

Arthur Edens’ sudden revelation, his flash of insight into the error of his ways, is an inconvenience. The case is drawing to a close as U-North is preparing for a settlement, but now that Arthur is proclaiming his own rebirth, free at last from the world of sin which he has spent 30 years of his precious life wallowing in, Kenner, Bach & Ledeen is in one heck of a bind.

With his friend and colleague flipping out, senior partner Marty needs Michael’s expertise to somehow bring the problem under control. And Michael is his best bet, make no mistake, but this time his challenge is of a different magnitude.

Arthur is a depressing case study in what happens to a man who bases his life – his livelihood – on deeply immoral activities, as is the case for so many of the other fractured human souls the film shows haunting the office tombs of Manhattan. The world which Arthur has spent 30 years of his life mastering is a cold and brutal place, where truth can be bought at the right price, and compassion has been given early retirement. But Arthur’s shell has cracked, the armor which has protected him from himself finally dissolved:

…I realized Michael, that I had emerged not from the doors of Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen, not through the portals of our vast and powerful law firm, but from the asshole of an organism whose sole function is to excrete the… the-the-the poison, the ammo, the defoliant necessary for other, larger, more powerful organisms to destroy the miracle of humanity. And that I had been coated in this patina of shit for the best part of my life. The stench of it and the stain of it would in all likelihood take the rest of my life to undo.

Reborn in innocence

Arthur’s epiphany is feverish in intensity and akin to spiritual revelation. He feels that he has had a vision, that he has been summoned to do greater things with his life. And the ramifications on the U-North case are tremendous; it turns out that his hard-won insight has lead him to switch sides, to start building a rock solid case against his former corporate client.

Arthur pleads with Michael again and again not to brush him off as a madman. He seems to be trying, from the depths of his rediscovered heart, to bring across a message from a different state of being. And it is here that the film forces us to pose a question that has perhaps become – through repeat use – somewhat trite: Who is really the insane one here? Is it the man who claims with obvious zest and enthusiasm that he is Shiva, the God of Death?

Is it the henchmen that will soon kill him for Karen Crowder’s dirty money? Is it Marty Bach, the man who has dedicated his life to a business he himself admits is fucked up? Is it Don Jeffries – the head of U-North who willingly sacrificed the lives of hundreds of farmers for his own personal gain and the progress of his company? Or is it Michael Clayton, a man who deep down is decent, but who has become so numb and shut down – pain etched across his face – after having sidelined his humanity one too many times?

These are questions worthy of contemplation, but there is, at this moment, perhaps something of even greater interest to investigate. We’d do well to look closer at the source of Arthur’s descent into madness – or ascent into spiritual revelation: Anna. Anna is a young farm girl – orphaned by U-North – one among the 400-something plaintiffs, who captures Arthur’s heart by virtue of her innocence.

Arthur sees the world anew through her – she is the prism through which the light comes alive in myriad colors of magnificent beauty, gently striking Arthur’s hurting heart with grace. All of a sudden, and with great impact, Arthur is born again through the eyes of pure innocence.

To the adult mind which has been defiled through years of bad conduct and unethical choices, there is something extremely potent about innocence. Witnessing innocence in another can remind us of our basic, inherent humanity, which is a gift far more powerful than money could every buy.

Arthur goes mad with passion and regret in her presence – throws off his clothes and proclaims his undying love, seeking his redemption with single-pointed determination. Worse things happen when the defiled adult mind wants to own the innocence, especially when children are involved, but that – thankfully – is not the subject of this movie.

It’s important to acknowledge that while innocence is normally attributed to children, it is more of a state of mind, one that which can be attained through being transparent to the world. The individual who does not hide inside a shell of make-believe is indeed innocent. This type of innocence is a way of looking at the world – every moment – with fresh eyes.

This is truly is what schools of spirituality call Enlightenment. Much of our world functions in ways that completely corrupt our innocence, and we are cut off from ourselves, every moment, others, the world. You will notice that in the movie, everyone is guilty but Anna, and in reality the entire drama that inevitably brings down U-North is sourced in her.

Michael’s journey of self-discovery

Arthur takes Michael along with him for quite a psychological ride. Along the way, Michael is forced to take some long overdue looks at himself. “Was this what you wanted?”, Arthur asks Michael half asleep from his hotel bed, “be a janitor? Live like this? All this? Do what you do? It can’t be! It’s a burden is what I’m trying to tell you. I know, we have been summoned!” Arthur is calling on Michael to join him on the crusade for good that he has just discovered.

Michael does not take him seriously at first, but it sneaks up on him, and he is stuck with the feeling that he has sacrificed his integrity for success and has become a despicable man. He is absolutely disgusted with himself. And when Arthur is murdered in a feigned suicide by the aforementioned henchmen, two lost souls haunting this movie’s spiritual wasteland, Michael is unable to let the case go. The gravity of Arthur’s passion and the magnitude of his realization has got under Michaels’s skin. He is the only person who can carry Arthur’s torch forwards. To redeem himself, Michael has no choice.

But he has a $75.000 debt to settle, and when Marty back offers him a “bonus” of $80.000 as long as he shuts up about Arthur’s findings, he is faced with the ultimate dilemma: Does he respect his dead friend and his own personal honor or does he take the easy way out? In effect, does he choose to be a man, in the truest sense of the word? He takes the money, effectively ending his soul.


But it is not the end. In a mysterious event, graced as if by the hand of God, he discovers – as he tries to outrun his inner demons by driving recklessly and randomly through the countryside – something familiar on a hill. In front of him are three horses, in a scene exactly like one depicted in the strange fantasy book Realm and Conquest that linked Arthur with Harry, Michael’s very special son and Arthur’s second source of innocence.

Something comes together for Michael in this scene; he looks infinitely vulnerable where he stands exhaling deep relief into the cool dawn air, liberated by the innocence of three horses on a hill in a countryside unspoiled by humanity. His inner demons leave him alone there and something in him reconnects with its source. There is the sense here – ever so strong – of the incredible tragedies that have befallen human civilization. We have created such pain for ourselves.

All this angst and paranoia, this stress and hurt, this separation, fear, loneliness. And for the sake of what? For the illusion that happiness can be found after whacking off a guy in a hit job, after putting an early end to hundreds of farmers’ lives and covering up the fact to defend your own wealth and power, after climbing the career ladder to success, sacrificing your entire life in the process, after spending a lifetime defending the guilty.

This is the darkest shadow of modernity, and it is truly a heartbreaking, awful realization – for this is no mere fantasy. These are real people living real lives where you live. If this doesn’t send chills up your spine and fill your heart with tremendous sadness and regret, you’re not thinking about it in the way I want you to.

Michael has chased happiness for a lifetime, but has got only pain out of it. Standing there with those three magnificent creatures of nature, he seems to be broken open to the understanding that all he will ever need in the form of happiness is encapsulated in that moment of utter simplicity. He is free at last, in the open embrace of nature.

Michael reclaims his humanity on that hill, and goes back to bring U-North down, after an attempt has been made on his life  by the same men who killed his divinely inspired friend. He carries with him Arthur’s document that proves the heinous nature of U-North (despite all their feigned goodness) and so the cleansing fires of Arthur, or is it Shiva, are carried forth through the fixers rejuvenated conscience.

The pathetic Karen Crowder breaks down when she realizes that all her work trying to cover up the horrific acts of her employer are in vain. She is a ghost of a woman, shaking in spasms on the floor. She has no friends, no love, nothing. Without her job, her life is over. She was not among the lucky ones to go crazy.

And so the movie comes to an end in a way that leaves me speechless. Michael, this shell of a man, has just reclaimed some of his innocence, integrity, human beauty and goodness, and we understand that things will never be the same again. In a symbolic scene, he takes the escalators out, in a shot where the cameras turn for the first time in the movie (steadycam and framed scenes drive the movie) as if to imply a change of perspective.

He sits down in a cab, gives the driver $50 and tells him “just drive”. He doesn’t know where to, just that he wants to investigate the feeling of having done right and being in good standing with the forces of truth yet again.


Michael Clayton is a tragic movie about people who find themselves swept away by circumstances  – the stress and toils of modern life  – until one day they wake up and realize their souls are dead and their lives have turned evil. It is a portrait of human weakness, folly, and fragility, and paints a painfully realistic picture of a world where people consistenly act outside of their own conscience and basic humanity. Michael is a fixer, but fixing a human soul that has willfully destroyed itself is beyond his capacity.

The movie brings to light issues of male integrity and the price of truth. If living life in accordance with Truth required us to let go of absolutely everything, would we do it? Would you?

More than anything, though, Michael Clayton is a reminder that we must never let go of our innocence – our basic human goodness – no matter how old and experienced we grow. The day we lose the ability to see our loved ones and the world anew every time we open our eyes is the day our life becomes a parade of horrors.

Love and truth are the ultimate priorities. Arthur is right, we have been summoned. This is no mere fantasy. This is the reason we live and why most writers on masculinity will tell you that life starts only when we find a calling to serve the world through. Until that moment, we are vulnerable to the dark side, easily swayed by the temptations of immorality and the promise of an easy way out.

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