Half the people at Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen have no idea what Clayton does, exactly, and the other half can't look bring themselves to look him straight in the eye. He's a tool that's readily wielded, although there's a certain mistrust that wafts around someone who knows where every last one of the bodies are buried. Clayton's handsomely compensated for continually getting his hands so dirty, but he can't stomach it anymore. He may be a lawyer on paper, but he's a bagman in practice with no life of his own to speak of, and a bad investment has cost Clayton every last cent of his walking away money and another seventy-five grand besides.
One of the firm's other janitors is Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), who's squandered almost the entirety of the past two decades working a single case. Agricultural conglomerate U-North has been doggedly fighting allegations that one of its herbicides is responsible for the deaths of several hundred people. It's a meandering struggle with no end in sight, and halfway through another in a neverending stream of videotaped despositions, Edens snaps. He starts stripping down to near-nothing, professing his love and adoration for the daughter of two dead farmers before darting through the parking lot wearing nothing more than a pair of socks.
It's profoundly embarrassing for Kenner, Bach, and Ledeen, threatening a pending merger as well as millions of dollars in unpaid fees. As Clayton sets out to sweep up after one of the few people he can honestly call a friend, he discovers that Edens has been working both sides of the case, on the brink of flooding forth damning evidence that would cost U-North billions. Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), who's recently been promoted as the company's chief counsel, catches wind of this as well, shakily and unconfidently making use of the newfound power at her fingertips to eradicate these threats.
That may read like some sort of Grisham potboiler, but Michael Clayton leans away from those familiar formulas. It's not a typical legal thriller; there's not a single scene in a courtroom, for one, and the movie earns its tension and suspense not by breakneck car chases or gunplay but by following the story and its characters as they unravel. Really, the plot is almost incidental. That's not a jab at the writing, but Michael Clayton's greatest strength is how well-realized its characters are. It's the film's humanity and sincerity that are singularly responsible for how compelling Michael Clayton is, and it's so exceptionally well cast that swapping out the actors in any of the key roles would've resulted in an almost unrecognizably different movie.
George Clooney brings a weariness to the character of Michael Clayton, a man who's consistently in control of every situation except the ones that matter to him the most. He's indispensable to the firm but is viewed with sneering mistrust -- not because of what he's done but purely because of what he knows. There are bursts of fire, but Clooney's able to convey with a subtle expression or a quiet glance with his eyes that all remnants of self-respect have been weathered away as his unwanted talents are time and again exploited by such useless, repugnant people. It's a job that inherently demands putting any sense of righteousness and morality on the shelf, and Clayton resents the fact that he's put in a position to choose between some sort of firm financial footing and his wavering moral compass.
Arthur Edens has spent the better part of the last two decades on the razor's edge. His brilliance is owed to the fact that he is somewhat unbalanced, and Tom Wilkinson plays him as a man who doesn't have both hands on the wheel but somehow knows precisely where he's going. His mind is as sharp and incisive as ever, even though he's compelled by emotions wholly out of his control.
All of Michael Clayton's central actors were nominated for Academy Awards, but only one took home a statuette, and Tilda Swinton indeed may have been the most deserving of the three. This is a role that in any other movie would've been the familiar archetype -- a cold, calculating lawyer perched in an office reeking of leather and brandy, sort of a Bond villain with a degree from Harvard Law looming on the wall. Instead, Karen Crowder is completely out of her depth. She'd barely worn the mantle of Chief Counsel for twenty minutes before Edens streaked his way through a deposition, and it dawns onto Crowder fairly quickly that she can pick up the phone and dial up a quiet, steely fixer of her own. Crowder's hesitation...her awkwardness...the way she's been mercilessly thrown into the deep end of the pool and can barely keep her head afloat is what's so intriguing. Also of note is Sydney Pollack, bringing to Clayton's boss the same sort of "who do you think you are?" arrogance -- when he doesn't have his hand out, of course -- that made him so fascinating in Eyes Wide Shut.
This is a demanding movie. Its characters aren't introduced in quick bursts, accompanied by cheerful bits of exposition cleanly and clearly explaining who they are and what to expect from them for the next two hours. The pacing is a slow burn, and so much of the fascination is owed to watching Tony Gilroy deliberately weave this tapestry. It culminates in an ending that's understated and simply brilliant; rather than ramble on after the climax and overexplaining in mind-numbing detail how the wicked have been punished and the righteous live happily ever after, Michael Clayton draws to a close in a way that's much more quietly satisfying. It's the best ending of any of the many films I've seen in the past year, and much like the movie as a whole, it rests entirely on the strength of its characters and cast.
Video: Home theater showcase material it's not. Encoded with Warner's preferred VC-1 codec and presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1, Michael Clayton looks uneven on Blu-ray, although I'm assured that its theatrical screenings were fairly inconsistent as well. Clarity and fine detail are middling, especially when the camera pulls back, and the image is flat and lacks any tactile depth. The cinematography takes some of its cues from the thrillers of the '70s, and viewers should go in aware that a deliberate part of the film's aesthetic are its somewhat grainy texture and cold, steely palette. While that's to be expected, the edge enhancement that occasionally creeps onto the frame is not, and certain patterns such as neckties, air vents, and car grills sporadically shimmer. Although Michael Clayton should have somewhat of a rough hewn look to it, but I can't help but think the authoring isn't up to the usual standards on the format.
Audio: The sound design of this Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (640Kbps) is fairly typical for this sort of low-key thriller, anchoring the bulk of the activity across the front channels. The surrounds are reserved for atmosphere and reinforcing James Newton Howard's score, the latter bolstered by pulsing, colossal waves of bass. Nothing exceptional but perfectly fine for what it is.
Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks are also included in French and Spanish, and subtitles have been provided in all three of the disc's languages.
Extras: There are only two extras on this Blu-ray disc, although for what it's worth, they're both better than average. The first of them is a fantastic audio commentary with writer/director Tony Gilroy and editor John Gilroy. It's fueled by the brothers' infectious passion for the project; the fact that they're so enthusiastic about speaking about their film makes for a great listen, and they run through the initial pitch, the lengthy process of lining up financing, and doggedly pursuing George Clooney for the lead before Michael Clayton can barely get a few minutes in. Tony Gilroy delves into some of the challenges he encountered during his first outing as a director, from continually losing locations to the headaches of practical driving and capturing key shots just before dawn. He also notes how much of his life had been sketched into the margins of the screenplay as well as touching on his approach as a director, which included minimal rehearsals. It's a smart, chatty, comprehensive commentary buoyed by a really strong sense of humor, and I'd definitely recommend setting aside a couple of hours to give it a listen.
The two Gilroys also provide optional commentary for three deleted scenes, presented in standard definition and anamorphic widescreen. They include a look into Clayton's personal life and a rare moment where he lets his guard down, a follow-up to Clayton being berated by one of the men he's been tasked to help, and a quick chat with the movie's two methodical killers.
Conclusion: Michael Clayton is outstanding -- Tony Gilroy and the exceptional cast he's assembled reshape a story with a somewhat familiar skeleton into a film that's masterfully crafted, challenging, and unerringly tense. Admittedly, Michael Clayton is a showcase for its actors, not home theater rigs; the movie looks and sounds fine on Blu-ray but has no need to dazzle in the usual ways. More disappointing is the meager set of extras. Its commentary and deleted scenes are considerably better than average, but seeing so many of Warner's Academy Award nominated films get such short thrift leaves me wondering if more lavish releases are in the wings. While the lack of extras may leave some cautious viewers leaning more towards a rental, Michael Clayton is a rewarding discovery on Blu-ray, and it's a movie that comes Highly Recommended.