The Clearing, partly shot in Asheville, is a pre-sold local offering — though I fear that Asheville watchers may be a little surprised that there’s nothing very specifically Ashevillian about it.
Not that that’s so surprising, since the movie is supposed to be taking place in Pennsylvania, and most of the North Carolina footage appears to be the wooded scenes. The house in the film may also be local, but it isn’t presented in a manner by which you could really tell. I think the first scenes of Willem Dafoe in a parking garage are on the top floor of the Wall Street one — though subsequent garage shots are curiously not on a top floor!
All this aside, the question arises, of course, as to just how good a film The Clearing is by other standards. And it’s not a bad movie, by any means. Yet in some ways, I feel a lot like a number of other critics who’ve given it respectful reviews. Even the most glowing praise of The Clearing almost apologizes for the film’s being a kidnapping drama that isn’t interested in being a thriller, but more of a “psychological study.” There’s a sense of these reviewers wanting to like the film better than they do. I understand this.
I like Robert Redford and Willem Dafoe, while I positively adore Helen Mirren, so I wanted The Clearing to be a film worthy of those actors. It isn’t. It’s beautifully photographed by Denis Lenoir, evocatively scored by Craig Armstrong (Moulin Rouge!), helmed with some assurance by producer-turned-director Pieter Jan Brugge, interestingly structured, and beautifully acted by its three stars. However, by the time The Clearing was over, my single greatest feeling was: Why did anyone want to make this movie?
I can’t answer that question beyond suggesting that everyone involved thought it sufficiently “different” to warrant the attempt — and the stars undoubtedly realized that whatever else it did or didn’t do, The Clearing afforded them meaty roles that allowed them to create some pretty interesting characters. The script by newcomer Justin Haythe is packed with good dialogue and the film’s structure is unusual. The story appears to be unfolding in a linear manner, but as the film progresses, it becomes apparent that we’re dealing with two distinctly different time frames — the Redford-Dafoe footage covering a different, briefer span than the footage surrounding it. This is an intriguing approach, and it gives the film what little dramatic tension it has.
The story line is pretty standard kidnapping-drama stuff. Disgruntled former employee Arnold Mack (Dafoe) abducts self-made businessman Wayne Hayes (Redford), taking him into the woods — supposedly to a cabin where the real kidnappers await his delivery — while Hayes’ wife, Eileen (Mirren), pieces together her husband’s past in the hopes of saving him. There are embellishments involving the couple’s children and the efforts of the FBI to assist, but much of this is either not very interesting or else downright digressive, since the film only works when dealing with the main characters. And this limited success isn’t just because these three are the only developed characters, but also on account of the film’s insistence on downplaying the drama of the situation, thus robbing the story of any inherent interest when it strays from character study.
In this regard, The Clearing slightly resembles In the Bedroom — another film that goes out of its way to eschew any hint of drama, as if the very idea of such is abhorrent to the filmmakers. Though it seems unlikely that The Clearing will attain the fluke popularity of In the Bedroom, I think it may be slightly more effective in its aims; credit this to the leads and the added interest of its unusual structure. Plus, its characters are better developed.
Whatever the film’s shortcomings as drama, The Clearing does spring to life when revealing — or even hinting at — more about its characters. The conversations between Wayne and his kidnapper are never boring and constantly suggest a surprising depth to the conceptions of each character. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the viewer’s growing realization that Arnold set his sights on Wayne less out of a need for revenge than because he admires him — almost to the point of hero worship. As their peculiar relationship develops, it’s hard to avoid the sense that Arnold chose Wayne because he would like to be Wayne.
Mirren’s job is harder, since her character spends so much of the film working without an actor of comparable strength. She has to create Eileen almost on her own, and it’s amazing how completely she pulls it off. When Eileen visits her husband’s mistress (Wendy Crewson, The Santa Clause 2) and quizzes her about the nature of the two’s relationship, the complexity of her emotions is nothing short of astounding — particularly when it culminates in an unexpected outburst that’s almost as shocking as it is perfect.
Unfortunately, all this is housed in an indifferent story that refuses to be true to its thriller underpinnings. Whenever the plot takes hold, the movie becomes perfunctory, dull and sometimes downright foolish. There’s an ill-advised bit where Wayne briefly gets the upper hand with Arnold — only to lose it with the kind of stupidity usually reserved for addle-brained virgins in slasher pictures. Less stupid, but just as uninvolving, is the by-the-numbers ransom scene; it has to be there, but it’s so flatly executed that it’s hard for the viewer to care.
See The Clearing for three actors at the peak of their craft, by all means. Just don’t expect the movie to be equal to their performances.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke