(NOTE: You might not want to read this if you haven't yet seen the movie, and plan to. I don't think I give away much, but just in case...)
It's dawn. Three horses on a hillside, powerful, serene, majestic. They are connected with their natural environment, at peace with their own nature... Behind the man who stands there, gazing at them, down at the bottom of the hill, his expensive black Mercedes explodes in a burst of searing flame. Explodes again.
He was supposed to be inside it.
This is Michael Clayton's moment of truth, in the film whose title is appropriately his name. It's the moment that he glimpses an end to his own suffering. And suffer he does. His life has gone awry, his moral compass long since lost. Separated from wife and family, awash in gambling debts, he has surrendered his career as a lawyer to acting as the "janitor" to his corporate law firm, doing whatever it takes to clean up those inconvenient messes that threaten the firm's image--or that of its clients. He has learned to skillfully manipulate the truth to serve the corporate interest.
From that start on the hillside, we are led back through the last four days that have brought him to this epiphany. He has been assigned the task of bringing back a partner, Arthur (wonderfully portrayed by that fine actor, Tom Wilkinson) who is also an old friend and colleague, into the fold of corporate contingency. Arthur has lost his senses--or, as we discover, found them. Building the defense of a corporate client desperate to save itself from the public exposure of its egregious poisoning of hundreds of its consumers--and potentially millions more--Arthur has done the unthinkable, switching his alliegeance from the client to its victims. A traitor to the firm and to its bottom-line "values," this miscreant must be brought back in line, and Michael Clayton is the man relied upon to do it.
Along the road, however, Clayton is brought face to face with the venality of the system that he serves. Increasingly, he comes to realize that real justice is on the side of the plaintiff in the case in question, and that his friend is far from the lunatic he has been made out to be. When Clayton's counterparts, the "janitors" who represent his firm's corporate client, spring into action and resort, finally, to murder, he turns coat himself, sacrificing his own interest and that of his firm to the revelation of the truth.
Before I get lost in the complexities of this finely-conceived, finely-written, and magnificently enacted story, let me get back to redemption--for that, as I see it, is the story's theme. If Arthur forsakes the "meds" that have kept his life in balance and descends into a fit of madness that reveals itself as moral clarity, Michael's redemption is the greater struggle, because it involves the surrender of everything that has seemed important to him: money, status, the respect and trust of those he works for, his employment--and finally his very identity--in order to emerge from the hell he has created for himself. In a remarkable feat of acting, as the film comes to its close, George Clooney's face alone conveys the transformation from misery and desperation to a kind of happiness.
"Michael Clayton" kept me on the proverbial edge of my seat from beginning to end. It's the kind of film where you're never allowed to pause and glance nervously at your watch. It's a true thriller, but one where violence is reduced to the necessary minimum and where the characters and the complexity of their moral issues drive the action. It's tough, uncompromising, but not lacking in tender moments, and it grabs you where good art is supposed to grab you--round he heart. Clooney's Michael is at once strong and vulnerable, scared and angry, transparent and inscrutable. We can forgive him for having lost his way, because we share his human failings, his desires, his attachments. It's when he learns to let go of them--in good Buddhist fashion--that he finds the beginnings of his freedom.
The other part of the Buddhist lesson of this film, by the way, is the karmic teaching: that cruel, unskillful actions lead inevitably to unhealthy and undesirable outcomes, while skillful action brings about the results that satisfy the soul.