It starts simply: It’s a quiet fall morning and two men are getting dressed for their day, one in an elegant mansion, the other in a run-down house in a bad neighborhood. The wealthy man goes about his preparations in a leisurely way, important enough that he doesn’t have to worry about being at the office at any specific time. He pauses for coffee with his wife, who will spend her morning swimming in their pool. As he leaves his driveway, he pauses to pick up his Wall Street Journal, and we see the poor man has been lying in wait.
And so begins The Clearing, a curious and idiosyncratic enterprise: a suspense film written in haikus. The wealthy man is Wayne Hayes, played by Robert Redford; the poor man is Arnold Mack, played by Willem Dafoe. Wayne’s wife, Eileen, is played by Helen Mirren. These are very fine actors, and their performances here are excellent. Particularly noteworthy is Mirren, who makes the largest impression with the quietest role. She passes through entire scenes without a word, not needing to speak, as every feeling is writ large across her beautifully expressive face. She imbues Eileen with a quiet strength and bottomless dignity. (There isn’t much romantic chemistry between Mirren and Redford, but since circumstances keep them apart for most of the film, it’s less of a problem than it might be.)
When Wayne doesn’t return home for dinner that night, Eileen is at first simply embarrassed; they’d invited friends over, and she must face them alone, with palpable discomfort. Eventually it becomes clear that Wayne has not simply forgotten their plans. Eileen contacts the FBI and a team arrives at her home, led by Agent Fuller (Matt Craven).Their adult children, Tim (Alessandro Nivola) and Jill (Melissa Sagemiller) return from their far-flung lives to be with their mother. Eileen now has something to do with herself, and she gratefully slips into the role of perfect hostess and devoted mother.
Tim is torn between his responsibility to be the man of the family and feelings of impotence over his inability to affect the situation. Jill, the younger sibling, is infantilized by her fears, sleeping in her parents’ bed, clinging to Eileen. Nivola and Sagemiller are well-cast.
Not only do they have the acting chops to keep up with Mirren (a huge accomplishment in itself), but they seem a good match physically for their screen parents. Combine Redford’s rugged handsomeness with Mirren’s leaner bone structure and Nivola’s features are a pretty plausible outcome.
The Clearing marks the directorial debut of Pieter Jan Brugge, who has been a movie producer for 17 years, previously working on films such as Heat, Bulworth, and The Insider. Brugge has a deft touch with his actors, and restraint in dealing with the emotions of the characters. Though it both depicts and provokes strong feelings, the film isn’t manipulative. The characters earn their feelings, and they seem true to the moment (with the exception of a cheesy, unnecessary repetition in the otherwise-moving closing scene).
The film’s tone is closer to Woody Allen’s Interiors or Redford’s own Ordinary People than it is a typical suspense movie. This is due in large part to the quiet of the film. Many scenes play without music, and sometimes without dialogue either. The original music by Craig Armstrong is very spare, often using a single viola or a percussive piano.
As the plot develops, scenes cut back and forth on different timetables, showing the audience the passage of days at the Hayes household while slowly revealing the circumstances of Wayne’s captivity. Arnold has taken Wayne deep into the woods. They are headed, Arnold says, for a cabin near the top of a small mountain, where he will turn Wayne over to the men he’s working for.
Redford brilliantly telegraphs Wayne’s anger and his wounded pride as he is forced to undergo one indignity after another. He is a man accustomed to giving orders, and being forced to capitulate to Arnold brings out a rancor he probably didn’t know he possessed. Some of Wayne’s attitudes may be familiar from the recent spate of interviews with former President Clinton. Like Clinton, Wayne wasn’t born to privilege. He worked hard to get where he is, and he feels that he deserves the fruits of his labor. He’s also charming enough that one suspects he usually gets his way without anyone realizing they’re being manipulated. And like Clinton, Wayne sometimes indulges his impulses just because he knows he can.
Despite an insightful script and touching, lived-in performances, The Clearing is really three different movies spliced together. The scenes with Eileen, Tim, and Jill are about family and human nature in general, about the ways we relate to each other and the ways we hide ourselves. The scenes between Wayne and Arnold are about class resentment. And occasionally, usually when Agent Fuller pops up, Brugge remembers he’s directing a suspense film.
While almost every scene works when considered on its own terms, they don’t all hang together; transitions are sometimes too abrupt, and the sudden switches in tone, theme, and pacing are jarring. The second act, in particular, is problematic, with so many talky scenes in such radically different tones packed tightly together that you may want to ask for an intermission. You can’t really make a bad movie with a cast like this, but it turns out, unfortunately, that you can make a disappointing one. The Clearing is less than the sum of its parts.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
The Clearing / Jeremy C. Fox
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()