With Michael Clayton, writer Tony Gilroy proves once again that he is a master of the thriller form. As the author of the Bourne films, Gilroy took the action thriller to a new level, a feat made even more impressive by the fact that he was writing a trilogy. Now he has seamlessly connected the thriller genre to the social drama, and that may be an even greater accomplishment.
Stories about corporate malfeasance are quite common, and when they are done as straight social drama they are usually dull. Writers typically try to up the excitement by turning the story into a courtroom battle. While this approach gives the story suspense near the end, it does nothing to relieve the plodding steps leading up to the battle.
That’s where the thriller comes in. This form makes the entire story a crisis, with the hero in great danger throughout. Sounds like a good idea. But combining thriller with social drama is not easy. These forms are about as far from each other as two forms can be. Thriller is rushed. Drama is deliberate. Thriller keeps everything obscure until the big reveal. Drama lays out all sides of the issue in discussion.
Gilroy uses all kinds of techniques in this script that show he is a master storyteller. Let’s look at two that are especially important if you want to write a good thriller. The first has to do with the need of the hero. A good thriller establishes the weakness-need of the main character (the first major story structure step) and then connects it with the crime or case the hero must solve. When writing your thriller, always begin by making a one-to-one connection between the lead character and the crime. This allows you to give the audience a double success: the hero solves his personal problem and accomplishes the action line at the same time. It also allows you to play out the larger theme of the story through the personal struggle of the main character.
Through quick but precise brush strokes, Gilroy establishes that Michael is a purposeless man. He has a gambling problem, he is $85,000 in debt (from trusting his brother), and he’s a “janitor” lawyer. He does fix-it jobs for his firm, cleaning up the mess when someone screws up. He is assigned a case in which one of the firm’s lawyers has a crisis of conscience involving a client company whose use of pesticides may have killed a number of people. As the case plays out, it becomes clear that all the characters have some flaw at work that is crippling their lives. The lead attorney for the company, Karen, is obsessed with success. Michael’s boss, Marty, has always known the case was dirty, and is desperate to make a merger go through before any dirt comes to light. Everyone’s life is way out of balance. But the mantra they all repeat to themselves is “I’m just doing my job.”
Notice that the main plot line having to do with a company in which everyone was just doing their job is expressed in the psychological flaw of not only the hero but all the minor characters as well. Even more important, each character is a variation on the central moral problem of the hero and the company. This is one of the marks of an advanced thriller.
A second technique that Gilroy handles beautifully has to do with plot. Most writers have great difficulty constructing a good thriller plot. That’s because the thriller hero is always under intense assault. The opponent tends to be all-powerful, knocking the hero back on the defensive. Result: a passive hero and a weak plot.
For a good thriller plot, you have to balance an active hero investigating the case with an aggressive opposition that puts the hero in constant danger. This is a very tricky balance to maintain. A hero who is too forceful going after the desire line doesn’t make the audience fear for his or her safety. An opposition that is too aggressive paralyzes the hero and stops the plot.
In Michael Clayton, Gilroy knows just how to strike the right balance. He uses a flashback structure, rare in thrillers, so that he can jumpstart the story with a car bomb. This tells the audience that Michael is in grave danger and will be for the entire film. The writer can then go on with a quieter part of the story in which Michael is actively seeking his desire line and driving the plot.
Gilroy also breaks from the usual thriller technique of staying within the hero’s point of view, which makes it unclear if the apparent opponent is really guilty. By occasionally cutting to the opposition, he shows that the opponent is indeed extremely deadly and that Michael is blithely walking into a trap. As a result, Michael continues to drive the plot while generating even more fear in the audience who sees just how much danger he’s in.
If you’re interested in writing the thriller form, study Michael Clayton to see how a top screenwriter accomplishes the rare feat of effectively weaving social drama with thriller.