Michael Clayton (2007), written by Tony Gilroy, is an often-forgotten legal flick that’s less than two decades old. But it has high ratings, and the dialogue, characters and story (in other words, the script) is the basis for a large part of that. Let’s analyze it.
- Draft Read: “Final Shooting Script”
- Type: Shooting
- Page Count: 128
- Reading Speed: Medium
- Setting(s): New York, Milwaukie, Wisconsin
- Plot Structure: Linear, Spanning multiple days
- Genre(s): Thriller
- Theme(s): Law, Mental Illness, Justice, Greed
- Protagonist Change: Significant
Have you ever listened to a song and thought, “I know exactly what decade this is from.” Perhaps it’s the synthesizer telling you it’s from the 80s or just the old-style jazz sounds letting you know it’s pre-war. Or perhaps you’ve seen a car and thought, “That’s a nice 60s car!” Or, “Those boxy cars from the 70s suck!”
Well, Michael Clayton is the epitome of an early 2000s thriller movie. And why is that? Well, part of it may have to do with the heavy focus on mental illness, more or less not referenced so pointedly in films before that. How about corporate greed? Also not as popular a subject in earlier films. I know, I’m generalizing.
So perhaps we should look the other way. How prevalent are these topics today? Corporate greed? Whether it’s politicians trading stocks on information before it becomes public or CEOs making 1000x their workers, we read and see that in the news everyday! Mania? Of interest, but not enough to be the standalone title of a film (think Mania (2001)). Of course, this isn’t totally prescriptive the case: Uncut Gems (2019) starred a gambling addict and the repercussions of having such a condition.
But Michael Clayton has these well-travelled problems (and many more) put together: Bipolar disorder, gambling addiction, murder, cover-ups, assassins (using Russian-made weapons), the mafia (essentially), corporate greed… a fricken sting operation! And it’s formulaic, relies heavily on a general sense of urgency (see Pulp Fiction (1994) for a writeup on urgency in film), the list goes on. My point is this: Michael Clayton isn’t original. It squeezes in all of the hot-button issues present in the 2000-2010 era and combines them with prevalent screenwriting techniques of said era. Is that bad? No, but it may be one of the contributing reasons it’s a generally forgotten movie.
For all of the negativity I shared above about this screenplay, it’s obvious that this is the work of a master screenwriter. The descriptive word choices, setups and payoffs, heck even the overall plot structure… fantastic. I could write a whole article on any of the numerous ways in which this script excels, but I won’t, because I’m sure that’s already out there… somewhere.
I think Michael Clayton (both the character and story itself) struggle to effectively hook the reader/viewer: I mean, who is Michael Clayton the character? He’s a fixer. But why should I care about him? I’m not sure.
And that’s a broader point that applies to the entire movie: Not only is no one particularly likable, but no one is especially interesting. Attorneys fighting for or against no-name conglomerates? Snoozefest. Attorneys fighting for justice? Too broad. Attorneys fighting for the poor, the homeless, the hopeless? Better, but not great (see A Civil Action (1998)). Underdogs fighting for underdogs? Yeah, better.
The point? Michael Clayton is somewhat DOA in regard to the concept. Sure the characters are well-developed and the story moves along… but even a souped-up Prius is always going to be a Prius. And I just can’t see a legal thriller like this ever being a great film.
None to note.
I note part of the problem in regard to the plot in the Script Neutrals section. It’s worth noting that the plot may not be where we, as the audience, are supposed to focus here: Perhaps the central argument to the film has more to do with morality and justice. If that’s the case, then I’m not sure the scenes involving the car bomb and murder are necessary.
One could view the characters as one of the script’s strengths or flaws. What’s not a flaw is how they’re used by the writer. The film begins with many voiceovers by an obviously unwell Arthur Edens, and it’s a great screenwriting technique, because it let’s us take a look at the most mysterious man in the film.
And yes, the film has it’s fair share of stock characters: The smart son, Henry, the cold-blooded hitmen, Verne and Iker, and the dumb mid-western farmers. How about the woman in over her head? No, it’s not Tar (2022), rather it’s Karen, the cowardly attorney.
Dialogue & Pacing
Sadly, I didn’t take any notes on dialogue.
It flows nicely. No real boring scenes (which anecdotally feels common in Acts 1 and 2 in thrillers), which can be attributed to Michael’s sense of urgency caused by financial difficulties, saving Arthur, the court case, and the impending merger/closing of the law firm, his employer.
The film’s a thriller. Thriller’s can be impactful (ex. Inception (2010)), but aren’t always (ex. North by Northwest (1959)). And those two off-the-cuff examples show that thrillers don’t really have to be emotionally impactful to be strong movies.
But Michael Clayton’s a tad different because family, morality and justice are a big part of the script. It also combines genres, borrowing heavily from gangster/crime and detective. But you may notice that none of those genres are conventionally emotionally impactful, and therefore as one might expect Michael Clayton doesn’t carry a strong gut punch. In fact, I found it a bit forgettable, as the subject matter, characters and their predictable decisions felt overused by today’s film standards. It is worth noting that when this movie came out this may not have been the case.
One example on the predictable decisions: In the final scene, where Michael tracks down Karen (actually a somewhat similar ending to The Fugitive (1993) movie, not the script I read), did anyone actually think Michael would go for the money? Of course not, he was a changed man at that point. But the scene, unlike many of the others in the film, went on too long for one in which we already knew the final outcome.
Best Part of The Script
While the sequence wasn’t my favorite, the buildup to the car bomb exploding in Act 3 was truly thrilling, which is interesting as we already knew what ends up happening from the first sequence in the script.
This supports the idea that the climax/ending to a film doesn’t need to be a surprise/unpredictable (ex. 500 Days of Summer (2009)). Essentially, non-linear stories can still be powerful (ex. Pulp Fiction (1994)), and seeing the same narrative from new perspectives (ex. Vantage Point (2008), can still be a worthwhile experience.