Given that Michael Clayton draws on the familiar tropes of corporate shenanigans films, as well as on 70s conspiracy paranoia (even casting Three Days of the Condor director Sydney Pollack in a pivotal role), the end result is surprisingly fresh, mostly by virtue of Tony Gilroy's carefully layered shooting style, which manages to make even conventional revelations surprising. There's a nice example of Gilroy's work early in the film, when a high-powered company lawyer, played by the remarkable English actress Tilda Swinton, prepares for an interview; the images and words, not quite perfectly aligned, play off each other in subtly amusing ways, giving a new spin to that now-common movie idea of having a character recite lines in front of a mirror.
Gilroy weaves in other references that repeatedly create new and unexpected outcomes: there's a sequence in a hotel bar that evokes lead actor George Clooney's wonderful bar scene with Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight, with snow artfully falling in the background, but the scene unravels here as a metaphorical slap in the face. At the very beginning of the film, another sequence is reminiscent of Stephen Frears's The Queen (inadvertently, since Gilroy finished shooting his film long before the release of that picture). Michael Clayton and the titular monarch both have moments where they step out of the maelstroms that surround them, to reach out for something simpler and less jaded, but the scene in this film concludes violently, and ultimately gives the film its opening kick, nothing like the privately regal moment of grief in Frears's film.
Like most films about corporate malfeasance, Michael Clayton unspools in a wintry setting somehow appropriate to the bleak view of humanity unveiled by such behaviour (the most obvious exception is the sunny California of Erin Brockovich). The characters, too, are dragged down by the season. Clooney, in particular, looks utterly jaded by the demands of his job, fixing problems not of his making and, bit by bit, sacrificing something essential inside himself; if the resolution ultimately seems a little too poetic, it's hard not to want to cheer for him as he attempts to right things. In that, Michael Clayton resembles Patrick Kenzie from Gone Baby Gone: an essentially decent man soured by the environment of moral compromise in which he works, where his boss (Pollack) feels certain that a check and a contract can solve any difficulties. By contrast, the film has far less sympathy for Tilda Swinton's character (though the actress's work is stunning, and devoid of any trace of vanity): the conclusion implies that it's foolish for her to play in a man's world, and she - somewhat unfairly - takes the brunt of the film's moral opprobium.