The Daily Stream: Michael Clayton Is A Modern Masterpiece

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Michael Clayton"

Where You Can Stream It: Hulu

The Pitch: Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a "fixer" – a lawyer called in to clean up messes associated with the high-powered law firm that employs him. When Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), one of the firm's hotshot attorneys, has a complete mental breakdown, Michael is brought in to pick up the pieces. But when Arthur turns up dead, Michael begins to suspect foul play – foul play that involves an all-powerful conglomerate that the firm represents. 

Why It's Essential Viewing

Every time I rewatch "Michael Clayton" – and trust me, I rewatch it a lot – I come away awe-struck. "How the hell is this movie so good?" I wonder. Perhaps I'm being deceived. Perhaps my brain is so starved for adult-driven entertainment that doesn't involve comic books, or superheroes, or sequels, or remakes, that watching a serious drama like "Michael Clayton" tricks me, relating endorphins along the way. Or perhaps the movie just really is that damn good. 

Tony Gilroy's searing film involves lots of lawyers, but this isn't a courtroom drama. Instead, these are lawyers who work behind the scenes, pulling the strings and trying to win at all costs – even if it means some people have to die. George Clooney is phenomenal here, playing a lawyer who hasn't quite lost his soul just yet, but who seems to be barely holding onto it as well. We catch glimpses of Michael's troubled backstory involving heavy debts. He's divorced and seems to have a good relationship with his son. But he doesn't appear to have anything resembling a close connection with anyone, save for Arthur Edens. 

When Arthur has a complete meltdown during a deposition, Michael is brought in to help reign him back in. This sort of thing has happened before – Arthur is on medication for mental problems. But something is different this time. Arthur has finally realized that he's spent his entire career being the bad guy representing even bigger bad guys, and he wants to make amends, somehow. But once you're in it's not easy to get out, and Arthur ends up dead thanks to Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), the general counsel for U-North, the conglomerate Arthur and Michael's firm is representing. Karen realized that Arthur was going to blow the lid off of some shady business involving U-North, and the only way to deal with it, at least from her point of view, was to hire contract killers to bump Arthur off and make it look like an accident. 

Swinton is dynamite here, playing a morally bankrupt character who doesn't seem to realize how far gone she is. The film opens in medias res with Karen drenched in sweat in a public bathroom, burning up with anxiety over all the horrible stuff she's taken apart in. Is she remorseful? No. She just doesn't want to get caught. 

While there are some physical altercations in "Michael Clayton," and even an explosion, this is not even close to being an action movie. And yet the tension running throughout this thing is damn near electric, creating an almost overwhelming, edge-of-your-seat atmosphere. That's mighty impressive for a movie about people in suits sitting around in board rooms having adult conversations. Even though "Michael Clayton" opened in 2007, it feels like a relic from a bygone era. Can you imagine a major studio pumping money into something like this now? Even Warner Bros.? If Tony Gilroy tried to make this now I'm sure WB would insist he set the entire movie in Gotham City and have the firm's clients be Batman villains or something along those lines. Oh well. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go rewatch "Michael Clayton."