Tilda Break of Dawn: Michael Clayton

Men. Women. A man who transforms into a woman across several centuries. A bi-millennial vampire drained of inspiration. A cryogenic company CEO in the year 2151. A crime-covering mother. A conniving lawyer. The White Witch. A balleticwitch. Gabriel the Archangel. The Ancient One. Social Services. Twin sisters. Amy Schumer’s boss.

Since 1986, Tilda Swinton’s unparalleled eclecticism has enlivened stories about drinkers, sailors, soldiers, spies and so much more. This month, Midwest Film Journal staffers and contributors look back at the wild, weird and wonderful ways this Oscar-winning actress and international treasure keeps it going Tilda Break of Dawn.


SPOILERS ahead for a 13-year-old film

Tilda Swinton has become so well known for playing outlandish characters that she has become a character herself. For example, her character’s name in The Dead Don’t Die was Zelda Winston, and she played herself, as a vampire, in the first season of the TV adaptation of What We Do in the Shadows.

Despite her renown for being a chameleon, Swinton’s only Oscar nomination and win was for portraying Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton. I’m the first to admit that the Oscars mean nothing, but it is interesting that an actress with such an insane range won an Oscar for playing arguably the most normal character in her filmography. Rather than viewing this as further evidence of the Academy’s idiocy I saw this as perfect evidence of Swinton’s greatness. It’s clichéd to win an award for a loud performance. Swinton, in her infinite oddness, has made it weird to win an Oscar for portraying a lawyer. 

Acting in the Bathroom 

Michael Clayton, despite being mainly about corporate law, is actually a film about people pretending to be something they are not and either waking up to that notion or struggling to accept it. Tom Wilkinson’s character, Arthur, definitely wakes up, which drives the plot. Clooney’s titular character (obviously the film’s focus) is forced to reevaluate his life on every level — accepting the ways in which he has been a failure up to this point in his life and start a course correction. Karen Crowder (Swinton), on the other hand, desperately tries to be something she is not. 

We first see Karen sweating during what appears to be a nervous breakdown in a bathroom. We later find out what led to her anxiety. But even though we don’t know why she’s melting down in the moment, Swinton’s performance lets us know that this is a broken person who refuses to waver in public. 

After that scene, we slowly see what led to it. Swinton’s short scenes throughout the film show a person extremely concerned with appearances who’s also willing to take drastic actions to maintain the status she has earned. The film doesn’t bother with a backstory for Karen — mainly because she’s a side character but also because the script and Swinton’s performance are more than enough to convey that this is a woman who has fought very hard to get where she is, and nothing is going to change that. 

We see this mainly in behind-the-scenes moments, like the aforementioned bathroom scene. At other times in the film, we see Karen preparing for an interview while getting ready. She is rehearsing a performance, hence “acting in the bathroom.” She’s not always in a bathroom, but by “bathroom,” I mean any private area. When she’s alone, we see the real Karen — a meticulous, but nervous, person who must give a performance at all times when she is in public. She knows that for someone like her, a woman of power in the corporate world, she must always be seen to be in control. 

Karen is not in control, though. A line spoken to Clayton sums up Karen, too: “You got everybody fooled, don’t you? Everybody but you. You know what you are.” She may have a blazer to cover the pit stains on her shirt from her nervous breakdown in the bathroom, but Karen is that pit-stained shirt. She is a mess that can’t afford to be seen that way by her “equals.” Her attempts to maintain control over the Arthur situation (which includes her authorizing two murders) has left her a panicked wreck … on the inside.

Swinton’s standout scene (and the bulk of her screen time) with Clooney is amazingly nuanced. Clayton calls her out on all the evil shit she and the company she represents have been up to, and she struggles to maintain composure throughout. What makes the scene so impressive is how small Swinton goes with her performance. Rather than have any kind of big reaction, Swinton knows Karen is someone who would break down in a series of awkward smiles and blatant lies. The final moments are glorious, as Swinton conveys so much relief when Clayton convinces her that he can be bought, only for that brief moment to be destroyed as the police arrive. And does Karen scream or run away or try to frantically explain things to law enforcement? No. Finally laid bare, she quietly crouches down, seemingly trying to disappear into the background of the terrible chaos she has (partially) created.

Swinton’s performance has become more impressive as her career has flourished. Sure, she was known and accomplished when Michael Clayton came out. But she wasn’t to the point that it would be perfectly normal for her to play herself as a vampire yet. Now that she is such a go-to for strange characters, it makes her nuanced performance as Karen Crowder a great example of how small and amazing she can make a performance rather than transforming herself entirely. Both abilities are why I love Swinton, but I think it’s much easier to go big (like wearing false teeth and telling people to be shoes in Snowpiercer) than it is to act in the bathroom.

The John Carter of Corporate Law Thrillers 

Michael Clayton was a critical and commercial success, but I still think the title is a bit weak. It may not be as detrimental as John Carter (which should have been John Carter of Mars so people, you know, knew it took place on fucking Mars). But it’s still a boring title, and I can imagine some people have dismissed this film because of it. But in the filmmakers’ defense, there isn’t a clear, better alternative. Michael Clayton of Kenner, Bach & Ledeen doesn’t help anything.

I still want to take a crack at it, even if thrillers are doomed to bland titles like State of Play and Broken City.

Memo #229 would make sense, but that is possibly the most boring title of all time. Most of the great lines of the film are too long to make a title out of, but Patina of Shit would be nice. Or perhaps I Am Shiva, the God of Death. That makes the movie sound like something it isn’t, however.

There is a possible fantasy-type title that could work since the book Clayton’s son is reading has such a strong effect on Arthur. Realm and Conquest sounds too much like a ripoff of The Lord of the Rings, but I think Summons to Conquest could work, especially since it is what Arthur titles his document meant to expose U-North. 

I think Summons to Conquest is a more interesting title, but they were better off going with Michael Clayton and hoping people would watch the previews to find out what it was about rather than judging the movie by its title. I just wonder if a serious conversation took place about the title and if some of my alternatives were considered.

Random Thoughts 

Wilkinson’s fevered voiceover is one of my favorite opening moments of a film.

Clooney is perfect in this film, and the early scene with Denis O’Hare is evidence of the greatness of his performance. He is doing so much in that scene with his eyes and small facial expressions. You actually don’t see the best part until it replays a portion of the scene near the end. That’s when you get the eye twitch from Clooney. It was a smart editing choice to save that twitch for the second time the scene plays because now we know everything he’s been through and why he’s done with O’Hare’s bullshit. 

“Yes! The nudity, the parking lot, I admit it. It was — it was — it was a mistake!”

“Two Lithuanian mouths on my cock? Is that the correct answer to the multiple choice of me?”

“And this is my moment! This strange conference table moment!”

I know it’s due to my love of Eyes Wide Shut, but I love watching Sydney Pollack explain how it really is to people. He’s the perfect guy to say to someone: “What the fuck do you think we do here?”

Wilkinson’s death scene is chilling.

The settlement discussion is sickening. The idea that they dragged the case out long enough that the tax write-off would pay for it is a perfect example of why Arthur feels like he’s covered in a “patina of shit” when he leaves the building.

The Oscars that year were nuts. Swinton beat Saoirse Ronan, Ruby Dee, Amy Ryan and Cate Blanchett (who I think I actually like more in I’m Not There, but I’m in the middle of Bob Dylan phase, so that might be why). Clooney lost to Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood. Wilkinson lost to Javier Bardem for No Country for Old Men. That’s right, Michael Clayton was up against There Will Be Blood AND No Country for Old Men.

I find this movie to be so tight and perfect. Almost exactly two hours, nothing extraneous. Unlike this article, which, let’s face it, didn’t need that section about the title.


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