Only minutes into the film, we encounter the perils attached to Clayton's work. After driving in early morning light through an autumnal countryside, he parks his Mercedes on a dusty rural road and climbs a hill toward three horses. When he reaches them, his car explodes, and it's plain from his reaction that he's only miraculously escaped a murder attempt. The picture then cuts back to four days earlier in order to answer questions about who tried to kill Clayton and why.
The most gifted litigator at Clayton's firm, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has been working on a complicated class-action, products liability suit for six years. The plaintiffs are members of farm families who claim to have suffered health problems after using a product manufactured by a giant agrochemical company named UNorth. Edens (note the association of innocence) has been representing the chemical makers. But now Edens has decided that his client is guilty, and worse, knows that it is guilty, and so he is risking a massive malpractice suit by preparing evidence to assist his opponents. Clayton's assignment is to get Edens under control before the entire law firm is destroyed.
At first glance, we might associate Michael Clayton with such films as Erin Brockovich, Silkwood or The Insider, all of which deal with corporations ruthlessly trying to suppress malfeasance in order to protect themselves from lawsuits. And certainly Tilda Swinton's reptilian turn as UNorth general counsel Karen Crowder is as merciless a rendering of inhuman industrial greed as anything in those other worthy pictures. But ultimately, Michael Clayton is about pollution no more than The Maltese Falcon is about smuggling. Michael Clayton is about the corrosive moral cost of wealth. We meet Crowder only as she ascends to her current position of power, and we can only conclude that her moral compass broke some time ago, but we can see and even sympathize to an extent with the yearning for stature that fuels her meticulous preparations. Clayton is a comparable figure, more comfortable in his role, perhaps, because he's been there longer. As he explains to Crowder at a critical juncture, 'I'm not the kind of man you kill; I'm the kind of man you buy."
Wealth affords privilege, and privilege is addictive. If he ever had a soul, Clayton's boss sold it long ago. Crowder has made her final sale more recently. Edens thinks he sees a way out of hell but at the cost of more than his own fortune alone. Clayton's time of reckoning has arrived. And the picture wonders if there is yet an ember still aglow of the better man he once aspired to be.