Michael Clayton’s strongest attribute is the attention it pays to character’s lives outside of the workplace. Unlike many other corporate conspiracy tales, the diminishing home lives and personal time of the central characters is made into a focal point. In addition to dealing with an enormous case involving a fertilizer company and a chemically unbalanced senior attorney named Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), Michael is scrambling to resolve the debt incurred by a risky financial investment with his deadbeat brother. His tracts get increasingly jumbled as details of both sides intersect and impede him from resolving either dilemma swiftly.
Gilroy’s world of corporate law is depicted much like the world of the mafia in The Godfather. At the heart of the story are two men – Michael and Arthur – both trying to escape the morass of immorality that has engulfed them. Whenever it seems like either one has an opportunity to break out, the system pulls them back in (to paraphrase Al Pacino in The Godfather Part III). In a brilliantly telling violation of the 180 degree rule early in the film, the camera cuts between Michael and Arthur from opposite sides of the room, reversing their positions on screen and effectively entwining their conditions – although not necessarily their fates.
The characters in the film are artfully drawn and so is the plot; although the presentation of the plot is not as skillful and falls into the trap of obfuscation rather than intrigue. Early scenes go into illuminating detail about litigator Karen Crowder’s (Tilda Swinton) preparation for a press conference but considering the film subsequently streamlines her for the majority of the second and third acts, the early scenes serve little effect other than disorientation. However, if you can make it through the first forty minutes of byzantine plot structure, you’ll uncover a gripping human drama very much worth hanging around for.