Wednesday, November 17, 2004

DVD: The Clearing (2004)

The directorial debut of veteran producer Pieter Jan Brugge sank like a stone earlier this summer. It’s the kind of film that requires critical support, which it clearly didn’t get. So I’ll get the ball rolling. THE CLEARING is one of the most intelligent and involving movies I’ve seen this year.

Robert Redford plays a wealthy Pittsburgh businessman who heads out to work one morning only to be kidnapped by his polar opposite (Willem Dafoe), a down-and-outer struggling to get by. The story then splits in two, cutting between Redford and Dafoe as they hike through the woods to meet the people who have ordered the kidnapping, and Redford’s wife Helen Mirren, waiting for some sign that her husband is still alive. The Redford/Dafoe scenes unfold over the course of a few hours, while Mirren’s stretch out for days. Justin Haythe’s script does a wonderful job of using the time differential to build suspense.

But the film isn’t really a thriller. It simply uses the form to meditate on larger questions. Only the final scene falters, taking the subtext and making it literal.

Redford and Dafoe are well-cast, but it’s Mirren who truly shines. Only as the film progresses do we realize that the story is all about her character. In a way, it’s no surprise that THE CLEARING failed to connect commercially. It makes no attempt to pander to the youth audience. From the theme to the casting, it’s about people of a certain age coming to grips with the totality of their lives. You’re not going to sell much popcorn doing that.