The central conflict in Michael Clayton is between a major New York law firm and one of their attorneys Michael Clayton. The firm and its chief partners are working to close a case with client U-north while simultaneously sealing arrangements for merger with a law firm in London. The firm is portrayed as being cold, calculated and immoral. Michael is a character capable of morality, however his job at the law firm and his poor personal choices bring his morals into question. He describes his job as a “janitor” for the firm, cleaning up messes for wealthy clients. This penchant for unethical behavior is mirrored in Michael’s personal life where he gambles his money at underground poker tables and owes $80,000 dollars on a failing restaurant investment.
The following sequence occurs just after Michael has discovered U-North documents detailing the company’s decision to produce weed killer it knew was carcinogenic. His friend and once partner at the firm Arthur sought to expose before his untimely death. Of course we know U-north hired hit men to kill Arthur secretively before he could expose them, but presently Michael only has growing suspicion that his friend’s death wasn’t the result of an accidental suicide as it was declared.
The first shot in this sequence shows us Michael walking into his firm with proof his boss was aware of U-North’s cover-up and just as importantly to Michael, his friend was right. The document blocks Michael and takes up half the frame to signify its importance. The part of Michael that values morality believes in the Truth, something even more important than him. Before a quick cut, we hear one of the hit men speaking with Karen Crowder, the U-north lawyer who arranged the killing of Arthur. The hit man tailed Michael and knows he has the proof to expose U-north. The two meet on the street, a series of quick cuts makes the scene feel frantic, jumping back and forth between Crowder and the hit man as she skims the document. The hit man’s eyes wander from side to side being the shady character he is. Quick cut back to Crowder, who looks up in horror when she realizes what Michael has got his hands on.
Back to Michael inside the law firm, he rounds a corner to reveal the office is abuzz. Michael in centered in the frame, in focus with employees surrounding him on all sides, out of focus.
The composition provides continuity with the frenzied pace created by the editing in the aforementioned shots, creating a smooth transition. It also reinforces a motif of Michael’s conflicted morals, feeling trapped by the firm. Throughout the rest of this sequence Michael will be framed in this context repeatedly.
In Marty’s office Michael is presented with an $80,000 bonus check he asked for to cover his restaurant debt and a new three-year contract, all in the middle of trying to show him the U-north document. Barry comes in to explain Michael will have to sign a confidentiality agreement, and tries to shake him down over the $80,000. Once again Michael is framed in the middle, between Marty’s and Barry (framed at eye level with each other), caught between his morals and his immoral job. This is also depicted rather literally by Michael holding the U-north document in one hand, and his “bonus” in the other. Marty and Barry walk out leaving Michael alone, where we see a very split lighting down the middle of his face. The light shining in the window again reinforces he has the potential to rise above the corruption of the firm, but in this moment he cannot yet.
The final two shots of this sequence mirror the first two. Once again the document is given significance by its size within the frame, only now it is folded up in Michael’s pocket. The next shot shows Michael looking very obviously defeated, and once again trapped, within the confines of the elevator. He had just stormed in full of confidence, but he left in defeat, still unable to rise above corruption even with solid proof.
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