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It centers on Michael Clayton. Michael Clayton is a "fixer" --a person who solves difficult situations by tampering with the legal system -- at the law firm Kenner, Bach, & Ledeen.
After leaving a poker game and making a quick stop to a major client's house, Michael Clayton drives off through Westchester and pulls off on the side of the road when he spots some horses on the top of the hill (Apparently, he has a soft spot for horses). While he is walking up the hill and gazing at the horses, his car explodes.
The movie then flashbacks to four days earlier, describing the events that happened before Michael Clayton's car inexplicably explodes.
This Film Provides Examples Of...
- Amoral Attorney: Deconstructed and subverted throughout.
- Karen fits this to a tee in what she does on the job, but that job leaves her highly neurotic and edgy.
- Marty (the managing partner of the firm) has a line that sums this trope up perfectly: "This case reeked from day one. Fifteen years in and I got to tell you how we pay the rent?"
- Arthur is an example of this who starts off the movie with a Heel Face Turn.
- And the main arc of the movie is Michael doing the same turn.
- Career Killers
- Corrupt Corporate Executive: U-North
- Crowning Moment of Awesome: Michael scares Karen shitless (she thinks he's dead and oh hey here he is!) and gets her to agree to wire ten million dollars to his offshore account. And then, hey, it's the cops and you're all under arrest. Badass.
- "Do I look like I'm negotiating?!"
- And best of all, after she agrees to his demands and obviously admits to everything, his final words, "You're so fucked. Here let me get a picture while I'm at it."
- Not to mention that background shot of Karen collapsing to the floor as everything comes crashing down on her.
- Default to Good: Several examples.
- Dyeing for Your Art: Tilda Swinton (Karen) gained a lot of weight in preparation for her role.
- Earn Your Happy Ending: Michael essentially has to cash in his career, and quite possibly the firm he works for, to do the right thing.
- Engineered Public Confession
- External Combustion: Double Subversion: we see all the usual car-focus foreshadowing, then nothing happens. Later on, the car suddenly explodes while Michael happens to not be in it, and we don't find out until the end of the film that he was being tailed by hitmen with a remote detonator.
- Fictional Counterpart: U-North might as well have been called Please-Don't-Sue-Us-Monsanto.
- Fridge Logic: Why did the police arrest Karen? When you get right down to it, she never actually admitted to anything incriminating.
- Well, they didn't have her on Attempted Murder or Murder for Hire, but they had her dead to rights on bribery, and it isn't a stretch to assume that the full list of her douchebaggery would come through over the course of a full investigation into her finances.
- How We Got Here
- Ivy League for Everyone: Averted, since the main character is a graduate of St. John's University and Fordham Law School.
- Leave the Camera Running: The final scene of Michael in the back of a cab
- Love Makes You Crazy: Arthur Edens apparently had a crush on one of the plaintiffs in the class-action suit. This convinces him to stop his meds.
- Make It Look Like an Accident: well, like a suicide.
- Magic Realism: The scene with the horses: it comes directly from an illustration from Michael's son's fantasy book and it saves Michael from the car bomb. Divine intervention?
- My God, What Have I Done?
- Obfuscating Insanity: Arthur
- Punch Clock Villain: Basically the point of the film. Kenner, Bach, & Ledeen profit off of protecting Punch Clock Villains like the insidious U-North corporation, to the point that Arthur's guilt finally gets the better of him. Karen Crowder is put in the position of protecting U-North and resorts to assassination. The assassins themselves are respectable business-types who take jobs while teeing off at the country club. Everyone is simply doing their job. In case we miss it, the opening scenes have Michael clocking in with his ID badge on the way to work.
- Shout-Out: I hope Clayton's kid's parents didn't actually let him watch Neon Genesis Evangelion before getting him an Eva...
- Stepford Smiler: Karen must arduously construct her aura of confidence. Scenes cut back and forth between the poised professional she seems to be on the job and the nervous wreck she is behind the scenes.
- The Atoner: Arthur
- The Spock: Michael Clayton
- To Be Lawful or Good: Arthur, then Michael.
- Trouble Entendre: In a very vague discussion between Karen and one of her spies, it gets so confusing for the spy that he outright asks if she wants him to go kill Michael Clayton or not; the whole scene is incredibly chilling.
- Villainous Breakdown: Literally, as Karen begins to fall apart while Clayton berates her, then starts shaking like a leaf and outright collapses to the floor as her crimes are revealed and the police move in to arrest her, to the point where they actually hold off on cuffing her because they fear she might need medical attention.
- What Might Have Been: The title role was written with Denzel Washington in mind.