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« Game of Thrones "A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms" (S08E02) | Main | 1972 Revisit: Awards Darlings »
Tuesday
Apr232019

The New Classics - Michael Clayton

Michael Cusumano here to christen my new series on future classics of the 21st Century with Tony Gilroy's 2007 legal thriller. In each episode we'll be discussing one great scene. 

The Scene: Karen Crowder’s Downfall 

How does the final scene of Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton work so well despite the wheezy cliché at its center? Secretly recording the villain’s confession is right up there with the Monologuing Killer on the list of tired plot devices. Yet when Clooney coerces Swinton into exposing her sins it doesn’t feel the least bit lazy. On the contrary: it’s electrifying...

Part of it is how elegantly Gilroy’s screenplay sets the stage for Karen’s ruin. Typically, when writers wheel out this trope, it’s a cheap escape hatch out of a screenplay’s third act. Not here, where we understand perfectly the dynamic at play. Karen is this closeto getting away with everything, the lawsuit over her client’s carcinogenic weed killer, the murders she ordered on Tom Wilkinson’s whistle-blowing attorney and George Clooney’s corporate fixer, all of it. She is probably beginning to let a little relief creep in when --BOOM-- Clayton shows up back from the dead with a fistful of damning evidence and a room full of stockholders twenty feet away. Even the steeliest criminal might falter under such circumstances and as we’ve seen, Karen is far from the corporate master of the universe she plays at being.

When an antagonist incriminates him or herself, arrogance is usually the fatal flaw. Think Colonel Jessup blurting out a confession in A Few Good Men or Gordon Gekko raging at Bud Fox in Wall Street. Not with Karen Crowder. For the whole film we’ve watched her barely hold it together, hiding in the ladies’ room, mopping up pit stains, desperately hoping she can sell off the last shreds of her soul before anyone spots the nervous wreck behind the frumpy gray business suit. She orders the hit on Tom Wilkinson with all the confidence of fourteen-year old buying beer with a fake ID. Having her flimsy façade crumble in a moment of stupid panic is the perfect comeuppance, like the final inevitable beats of a Greek tragedy.

In many ways Michael Clayton acts as Karen’s mirror image in this scene. Like her he spends most of the story excusing his compromises and rationalizations for the sake of expedience. Now haven finally rejected his own façade, the idea that he is anything but the “bagman” Arthur labeled him, he can wield that persona like a weapon. “I’m not the one you kill. I’m the one you buy,” he says reeling Karen back in when her instincts correctly tell her to flee. The film has earned the suspense that the story might go for the cynical ending, the one in which Michael sells out for the opportunity to escape because justice is not a possibility in such a corrupt world.

 

Off course, none of this would be half as effective without Swinton’s flat-out brilliant performance. This scene lasts just over four minutes and in that time we feel every excruciating step in Karen’s disintegration. There are so many devastating choices, like the way she tries and fails to cling to the appearance of confidence by laughing off Clayton’s ten-million-dollar demand, or her delivery of “You don’t want the money?”, a line that might have felt like too blunt a thesis statement were it not for the pathetic childlike confusion in her voice. Shaking in terror and collapsing are two things that almost always read as fake on screen but here Swinton makes you believe it. The way she allows the weight of her realization to sink in, followed by her legs buckling and an attempt to balance herself against the floor. It’s so much more effective than the standard melodramatic swoon.

Movies with corporate villains tend to portray them as omnipotent as Orwell’s Big Brother. In Michael Clayton, Gilroy associates them symbolically with weeds. Destructive not in their in their power but in their relentlessness, their ubiquity. It’s no coincidence that Arthur Edens, the film’s mad prophet, repeatedly translates the coldly corporate in terms of the organic, converting his billable hours into a percentage of his life, or imagining the law firm itself as a gigantic living organism. In this, Michael Clayton suggest that the real power is in seeing these monolith corporations as human and fallible. How fitting then that in the end, the entirety of U North’s years-long, billion-dollar defense goes under because Karen Crowder can’t spot an obvious ploy when it’s right in front of her face.

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Reader Comments (35)

She's awful, but I genuinely felt sorry for her throughout the whole movie. She's someone who found herself in an awful situation and instead of doing the right thing or simply walking away, clung on to whatever for whatever reason and was in over her head the entire time. Karen Crowder is clearly not meant to be in this world, but damn it if she's not gonna try, as awful as she is at it. "You don't want the money?" coming when it does, delivered as it is, has to go down as one of the most brilliantly pathetic moments in film.

I think this is a prime example of how a performance can elevate an entire film. It's almost refreshing to have a pathetic character played as a someone's that actually pathetic. If Karen had been some typical "corporate power bitch," you'd still have a solid thriller, but not the thing that Swinton manages to create.

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVal

Best supporting actress of the decade.

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCash

Swinton is unbelievable in this. One of my top five Supporting Actress winners ever.

Great episode Michael! Really looking forward to this series.

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterShmeebs

Great scene analysis! You put your finger on what works about this ending. And God bless Tilda Swinton. She's a marvel in this.

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

Swinton's win in the Supporting category is one of my favorites in recent years. For starters, she's exceptional, and it's a very lived-in performance. The fact that her victory was also somewhat of a surprise made it all the sweeter.

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJJM

This is the scene that won her the Oscar.What a truly fabulous supporting performance.I can't say how much i'd love a film just about Karen,she's so flawed but fascinating.

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

The legs buckling under as finally her body gives in to the pressure is the best bit of the whole film..

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Oh Yeah what a gr8 idea for a series.

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I love this film. Its oddly rewatchable, with beautiful, classical direction that still makes way for one or two stunning moments , eg, the killing of Wilkinson. George Clooney will probably never get a role as perfect as this, but what an amazing range of scene partners he has to work with (Swinton, Wilkinson, Pollack...)

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterIan O

This definitely wouldn't be my choice for starting a series like this. That would be a toss up between five scenes: "Baby, you are going to miss that plane" from Before Sunset, Don't Stop Me Now or the final Shaun's Mom scene from Shaun of the Dead, The Leap of Faith from Into the Spider-Verse and The Hanging from 12 Years a Slave. (5 that I also thought about: Cupcakes from Short Term 12, The Car Scene from Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Poker Game from Casino Royale (but this might be a bit too big for your purposes), Joker's Heist from The Dark Knight and Nicholas Angel's Employment Record from Hot Fuzz.)

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

A very good movie

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

A brilliant assessment of a wonderful performance - one of the best Supporting actress wins ever. A part, that played by a more conventional actor, could have been a total cliche but Swinton delivers such nuanced work, both empathetic and pitiful. And “You don’t want the money?” is a line reading for the books.

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Great pick! I have always loved this scene, especially the delivery of “you don’t want the money?” And the knee buckle! Such a solid movie topped by career best performances all around.

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrezz

I have to see Michael Clayton again, I remember just completely enjoying it back when it was in theaters and recall being really happy when Tilda won the Oscar. She so deserved it.

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Classic movie but not my cup of tea yet,. Way to Go Tilda

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

It’s frankly a miracle that Swinton won an Oscar for this (or an Oscar period). Not only did she totally deserve it, but she had never played a role like this before either. Bravo, Academy.

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

I own the dvd of Michael Clayton, and I haven't re-watched that often. But when I do, it really holds up, the acting from all the actors is excellent and feels real. But Tilda Swinton is the very picture of someone who has gotten in too deep and knows that it's starting to cave in on her.
Excellent idea for a series.

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Vsl - Agree 100%. Tilda doesn't have much screen time but it's difficult to imagine the film without her. She is the corrupt soul of the film, like Orson Welles in The Third Man.

Cash - Can't disagree

Shmeebs/ BVR - Thanks!

JJM - Same

MarkGordonuk - And the win is extra sweet because it is the definition of a genuine SUPPORTING performance

April 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Thanks for reminding us of the quiet brilliance of Tilda Swinton in this film. I saw this film once and was not bowled by it but thought Tilda's Karen was touching. More than the scene you described as classic, I thought her practiced monologues in the mirror were wonderfully acted and executed.

April 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

I can’t for the life of me remember what this film is about, but I remember Swinton being great (loved her sweating) and was pleased with myself for predicting her and Cotillard to win.

Maybe I should rewatch it!

April 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

Yes, a very good article - thanks! I like Tilda Swinton in this film, and Clooney and the rest of the cast...except I think that Tom Wilkinson's accent is a weak point. But a good film, and perhaps my favourite from the 2007 Best Picture nominees. And sad that we weren't going to see Sydney Pollack again after it. Always such a warm screen presence.

April 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

Awesome post keep posting such content

April 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTanvi

Ian - this film grows so much on rewatch, I didn't have this pegged as a favorite at all on first viewing. Now I treasure it.

Volvagia - Damn. Stumbled right out the gate. Any point in continuing? Nice choices. Three of those are already on my candidates list of possible episodes.

Andrew - Thanks! And hard agree

Mareko - Bravo indeed. The Academy comes in for so much grief they deserve the applause when they absolutely nail it.

Owl - Could've picked a half dozen scenes. I almost chose when Wilkinson performs for the wire tappers. LOVE that scene.

Tanvi - Thanks! will do.

April 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

It was a damn miracle that Tilda deservingly won for this amazing performance.

April 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterFadhil

Brilliant performances all around - and the last 6-7 minutes of this movie is unbelievably good, culminating with the final long shot of Clayton in the car. Had this come out in 2006 or 2008 it would have swept awards season.

April 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSawyer

There are layers of subtlety and mastery in this performance that you'll /never/ see when Tilda's doing drag onscreen. I love looking at her as much as anyone but a straight performance in a straight movie totally suits her...I wish she did it more.

April 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

Sorry for being too harsh. maybe for my upcoming blog I'll write on those I've mentioned. Stay tuned.

April 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

Great write up! Cannot wait for more :-)

April 24, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermikenewq

"When Tilda's doing drag onscreen. I love looking at her as much as anyone but a straight performance in a straight movie totally suits her...I wish she did it more."

I think this is why it hit with people,it would be like Johnny Depp without his bag of tricks,more people sit up and take notice.

April 24, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

@markgordonuk—

It could be that directors don't imagine her in "ordinary" roles.

It's why Trainwreck is another one of my favorite performances she's ever given. That one's draggy, but in a very broad and delicious way. I mean, any actress over 50 could've played that part.

Neither movie treats her like some priceless cinematic object on an auteurial pedestal.

April 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

I'm really happy to see you start with Michael Clayton. It's my favorite film from the great film year of 2007 and really speaks to that year in particular (the end of the W. administration and the prelude to the crash) to me. Unfortunately, it seems as though it never gets its due as a great film of its year because so much oxygen is occupied by No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood - also great films! But as a recovering lawyer, I love Michael Clayton because there are so many legal dramas and only a couple of them are this good. (Michael Clayton and The Verdict are probably my favorites.)

I'll also echo what Sawyer said about the ending scene with Clooney in the car. That is brilliant. I have rewatched the confrontation you've described here and that closing scene many times.

I am looking forward to your next piece in the series.

April 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Suzanne - The Verdict! Yes! That, Clayton and Preminger's Anatomy of a Murder are my legal film holy trinity

April 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Michael, we missed you! So great you're back!

I was just rewatching this and your analysis is right on the money. This character makes the finale work so well. Damn, she's great in this. Such a deserved Oscar.

April 25, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Excellent write up. I adore Swinton in this film. Has to be one of her top 5.

April 25, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEoghanMcQ

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