For a movie that gets so much mileage out of dialogue and exposition, the pivotal moment in Michael Clayton comes in a wordless scene of almost mystical beauty, with repercussions that ripple through the rest of the film. George Clooney, in the title role, stops his Mercedes at the edge of a field at dawn, after having spent all night losing his shirt at an illicit poker game in Chinatown and then coaching a wealthy scumbag in how to evade the consequences of a deadly hit-and-run. He’s a fixer for a high-powered law firm, and he’s most in his element when he’s chasing cash and screwing over those who don’t know how to twist the law to suit their interests. But the sight of a trio of horses at the crest of a hill in the fog of early morning stirs something in him. He parks by the side of the road and walks through the field to meet the gaze of the beasts, eye to eye. Behind him, out of focus, his car erupts in a fireball. This is Michael Clayton in a nutshell: a man whose talents bring out the worst in himself, fully aware that he ought to be a better person, and shadowed by death and madness in the meantime. It’s a fascinating character study, couched in a tight script of legal and moral intrigue, and bolstered by nuanced directing that brings out the best of an outstanding cast.

Written and directed by Tony Gilroy and released in 2007, Michael Clayton is set in contemporary New York City but feels like it could have been made in the 1970s when directors like Sidney Lumet were making tense legal thrillers, steeped in social realism, that hinged on critiques of corrupt institutions. Gilroy, who scripted the first four films in the Bourne series, made his directing debut with Michael Clayton, bringing a confident and understated style to a thorny story of the legal enablers of corporate greed, and the human costs that result. The law firm that employs Clayton as a fixer is representing an agro-chemical company in a class action lawsuit worth billions of dollars. On the eve of settlement, the firm’s star lawyer, Arthur Edens (a mesmerizing Tom Wilkinson), seems to suffer a psychotic break, stripping naked in the deposition room and hollering about the stench and stain of his role in the destruction of the miracle of humanity. In an effective feat of exposition, Edens’ voicemail rant plays over the opening establishing shots, sounding utterly insane (“I am Shiva, the god of death!”). Clayton is subsequently dispatched to set Edens straight so the law firm doesn’t forfeit 30,000 billable hours, but the more Clayton uncovers about the malfeasance and malevolence of their corporate client, the more he begins to think that Edens might not be so crazy after all.

The film’s overall feel is one of subtly shifting tectonic plates, as Clayton comes to reassess not only his job but the entire legal profession, as well as his own identity. In early scenes, he resents being called a fixer and a bag man, insisting that he’s an attorney and taking pride in the trappings of his cultivated image. By the end, the scales have fallen from his eyes. In the role of a corporate lawyer for the chemical giant, Tilda Swinton gives Clayton the perfect foil. Like him, she’s sleek and efficient, but she’s also ruthless and unacquainted with any moral qualms. She mutters twisted platitudes to herself (“When you really are enjoying what it is you do, who needs balance?”) while making preparations to ram through the settlement that will get her company off the hook for willfully poisoning hundreds of innocents.

While Michael Clayton was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award in 2008, other contenders that year—No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Juno—have arguably had a more enduring impact. The only Oscar the film won deservedly went to Swinton for her role as Karen Crowder, the nasty corporate lawyer. Her final confrontation with Clayton may be narratively superfluous but it’s a hell of a moment as Clooney gets his Oscar reel-worthy speech and Crowder bucks against him, cold-eyed and conniving to the last, before physically crumpling under the weight of so much corruption and evil finally landing on her.

As long as corporations wield the power to manipulate the law, and as long as smart people are willing to sell their souls to do so, films like Michael Clayton will be relevant. Here’s where Gilroy’s unflashy but cooly competent visual style and narrative mojo serve the story well. The filmmaking feels timeless, just as effective today as when the film came out. (Gilroy later co-wrote Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and is rumored to be the showrunner of the forthcoming Star Wars series “Andor,” raising hopes for an infusion of nuance and adult themes in that universe.)

Bookending the wordless scene in the field with the horses, the film’s closing sequence is a marvel of restraint that nonetheless lands like a blow from a velvet hammer. The camera watches Clayton in close-up as he rides in the back of a taxi away from his climactic showdown. The Manhattan streets unravel behind him as he stews over how much he’s lost: money, job, reputation, identity. And yet he’s finally done the right thing. For nearly two minutes, the credits roll, superimposed on his troubled face as he works through it all in his mind. Just as the ghost of a smile appears, the screen cuts to black. The Michael Clayton they named the movie after no longer exists.

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