Judge Eric Profancik would like to clear something up: He clearly enjoyed The Clearing.
"If you love me, I have everything I need."
With so much junk in today's mutiplexes, it's a shame that quality movies don't get the chance they deserve. As the number of screens per location increase, one would think there would be a greater variety available to audiences. But, as we all know, that is not the case, and we are subjected to four screens of Spider-Man 2, three screens of Master and Commander, two screens of The Grudge, and a partridge in a pear tree. Unless we're lucky enough to live in the big cities like New York or Los Angeles, we're not going to have many chances to catch some independent gems. Today's movie fans deserve a greater variety of choices from the local theater, not more choices of times to see the mainstream releases. (And, in the most evil twist of late, now you have a choice of regular or "ultra-leather" seating, at a slight premium, of course.)
This is ironic coming from me, for I have rarely given an independent film a glowing review on this site. Then again, none of them starred Robert Redford and Willem Dafoe until now…
Facts of the Case
The Clearing can be succinctly summarized as such:
Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford, Sneakers, The Great Gatsby) is a self-made millionaire who is kidnapped by Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe, Spider-Man, Clear and Present Danger). As Arnold takes Wayne out to the countryside, Wayne's wife, Eileen (Helen Mirren, Gosford Park, Excalibur), quickly figures out that something is wrong and contacts the FBI.
Saying anything more would spoil the experience of the film.
This is a very old tale, told in numerous films over time: A disgruntled person kidnaps a rich man and holds him for ransom. The Clearing isn't so much about the story but about the execution. The story itself is filled with the standard kidnapping clichés and plot complications, yet the film is not boring or routine. It's all in how the story unfolds that makes the film interesting and compelling. It's the subtle twists in the storytelling that make you pay attention. But most of all, it's the acting that makes The Clearing rise above its simple story.
It has been a while since I've seen a film with such superb acting, and what a breath of fresh air it was. Robert Redford, Willem Dafoe, and Helen Mirren are all fantastic in the film. They perfectly portray their characters, allowing them to slowly change and evolve over the ninety minutes. Everything from the line recitation down to the littlest glances was wonderfully conveyed. In my book, Redford is a great actor. He has decades under his belt and has expertly honed his craft. I'm not especially familiar with Helen Mirren's work, so I don't know how this compares to what she's done previously, but her portrayal of the wife is complex and impressively textured. All the while strong, you can see the tumult under the surface as she deals with the surprises that arise from the kidnapping. Then there's Willem Dafoe; this is his first performance I have been impressed with. Perhaps I've held on to my grudge of him being terribly miscast as John Clark in Clear and Present Danger, but he has finally shed that. He gives a stunning performance as a man who knows exactly what he's doing but…well, I won't go into that. The Clearing, quite simply, is an acting tour de force.
As mentioned earlier, what also makes this film noteworthy is the execution of the story. How the story unfolds adds a clever twist to this rather mundane tale, making it far more interesting to watch. In fact, the twist is so subtle that it'll take you two or three revelations before you've finally caught on. There are a few other ways that The Clearing differentiates itself from a routine kidnapping thriller, but again I shall refrain from elaborating on them for fear of ruining the experience of the film.
This is Pieter Jan Brugge's first directorial effort, and he comes up with a winner. Does he deserve the credit for the incredible acting? Does he deserve the credit for the creative storytelling? I'm not so sure he does, yet his name is on the film, so some credit does befall him. I'll give him kudos for pulling the right people together to create this enjoyable film. The great acting, the beautiful locales and cinematography, the absorbing story…sure, Brugge deserves recognition for this finely crafted independent film.
The DVD is a top-notch release from Fox, but it is a notch down from perfect. I really enjoyed the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. It was a clean and crisp print with nicely realized colors and blacks, great definition, and no significant errors. The one slight problem I had was an occasional flicker in the light balance. This was especially noticeable as Wayne and Arnold first enter the forest and the sky flickers in brightness. It's a minor quibble. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio transfer serves this dialogue-intensive film well with easy to understand dialogue and some nice use of the surrounds and subwoofer to add a little ambiance along the way. Unfortunately a scene with Wayne and Arnold sitting by a creek is distracting because the sound of the water is overbalanced, somewhat drowning out the dialogue.
A few special features are sprinkled around the disc, but they are on the light side. The big one is an audio commentary by director Pieter Jan Brugge, writer Justin Haythe, and editor Kevin Tent. I quickly lost track of Justin and Kevin, but Pieter's voice was more distinctive and he spoke the most. Unfortunately this track is a misplaced effort, for there were many scenes for which I wanted more information, but those weren't the ones they expounded on. I had many questions but none were answered. I was greatly disappointed with the track and don't recommend you listen to it. There are also six deleted scenes (15.75 minutes) with optional commentary (by the same trio). Some of the scenes added some additional character development, but I understand why they were removed—to keep the film moving at a steady pace. Rounding out the features are the trailer and the full screenplay.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only major quibble I can reiterate is that the story is nothing new. It's a standard kidnapping tale and many won't be intrigued by the story. But, as I hope I've shown, if you do watch the film, you will be rewarded in other ways.
And, this is way off topic, but I want to know who Helen Mirren's personal photographer is. She is pictured on the DVD cover with Redford and Dafoe, and I had no idea it was her. As I watched The Clearing, I kept looking at the picture wondering who this character was. I thought "she" would be some important figure to show up in the final act, but, duh, it was Helen. You may think that's absurd, but in this photo, there's not a wrinkle on her face and she looks a good twenty-five years younger. Like I said, just wonderin'.
Cutting to the chase, I highly recommend this film but only for a rental. It's a wonderfully acted piece that will keep you interested until the final moments. Redford, Mirren, and Dafoe do wonders with the routine material and create recognizable and relatable characters. Add in those "vague" storytelling twists, and The Clearing rises above its meager roots. There is much to enjoy in this film, and it's just a shame the disc has those few transfer problems and is lacking a rich bounty of extras. If you don't like this film and its performances, then I would be greatly surprised.
The Clearing is hereby found guilty of vague labeling. It is ordered to clarify its nomenclature.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Pieter Jan Brugge, Writer Justin Haythe, and Editor Kevin Tent
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