By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Buy The Clearing on DVD.
One thing a filmmaker can do to make a picture better is to clearly establish time and place. You'd think that such a thing would be a given, but it's surprising how many filmmakers disregard this simple concept.
For the new film The Clearing, writer Justin Haythe and writer/director Pieter Jan Brugge probably intended to play with time, to bend it and stretch it to serve their purposes. But in the end, they only serve to alienate us by deliberately confusing us.
The film begins like a standard-issue kidnapping story, similar to Proof of Life (2000) and a dozen others. The filmmakers cut back and forth between the kidnap victim and his fretting wife, trying to build an equal amount of suspense within each storyline.
A car-rental tycoon, Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford), lives comfortably with his wife Eileen (Helen Mirren) until a creepy kidnapper (Willem Dafoe) snatches him out of his driveway one morning. (We know he's a creepy kidnapper because he slicks down his hair and wears a short-sleeve, button-down shirt.) He records a "honey I'm fine" message on a tape and they head for the woods, where they begin walking.
This thoughtful kidnapper provides Wayne with a pair of comfortable walking shoes and even brings sandwiches and cigarettes. As we would expect from a Hollywood film, Wayne begins trying to psychologically badger his captor, attempting to call his bluff.
At home, the film's timeline begins to skew. Eileen receives items in the mail, causing us to wonder -- from where in the woods did the kidnapper mail this? How did it arrive in less than one day?
Things get even muddier when the kidnapper's demand comes in for $9.5 million worth of diamonds and half a million in cash. He gives Eileen three days to come up with it, and she does. Have the kidnapper and Wayne been walking through the woods for three days with only a couple of sandwiches to sustain them? Or did Eileen gather up the diamonds in less than one day?
It turns out that the filmmakers do have an agenda, but it's not as surprising or as clever as you may think. And the skewed timeline reveals everything anyway.
The basic problem comes not with the timeline, but with the dual storylines. In Proof of Life, kidnap victim David Morse carried the film, while the silly romance between fretting wife Meg Ryan and hostage negotiator Russell Crowe only slowed things down.
But in a superb film like George Sluizer's original Dutch The Vanishing (1988) -- not the 1993 American remake -- we follow the victim's family, getting to the kidnapper only late in the game. We share in their frustration of not knowing, and only being able to imagine the horrors their loved one might be going through.
Directorially, Brugge attempts to create an atmosphere of quiet dread similar to The Vanishing, but he fails to use some of his most basic weapons. The woods could have been used for extraordinary visual designs, illustrating terror or claustrophobia. But instead he opts for endless close-ups of his actors as they sweat and get dirty. It's more tiresome than suspenseful.
Ultimately, The Clearing is one of those movies that inspires a, 'what were they thinking?' response. Why would such a great actress as Mirren want to play a nothing 'victim' role after her brilliant long-running turn as a homicide detective on TV's Prime Suspect? And why would the accomplished Dafoe want to play yet another slimy creep?
As for Redford, I have a feeling that this screenplay and its non-traditional ending may have inspired in him some nostalgia for the 1970s -- when they actually made brave films from time to time. Unfortunately The Clearing is not so much brave as it is transparent.