The Clearing
The Clearing

UK, 2004. Rated R. 92 minutes.

Cast: Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, Willem Dafoe, Alessandro Nivola, Matt Craven, Melissa Sagemiller
Writer: Justin Hathe
Original Music: Craig Armstrong
Cinematography: Denis Lenoir
Producers: Pieter Jan Brugge, Jonah Smith, Dara Weintraub, Palmer West
Director: Pieter Jan Brugge


Grade: B- Review by Erika Hernandez

I f I hear the term “muted sensibility” one more time, I am going to silently and elegantly implode. Reserved mostly for cocktail parties where cinephiles gather to exchange insight over merlot and cheese, this term enjoys some play now and then (and did it ever get mileage with In the Bedroom, Unfaithful, and Lost in Translation). So, how does a film attain this elusive quality?

Ten-Step Recipe for Muted Sensibility (MuSe):

  1. Take one (1) common movie genre (fish out of water, the romantic comedy, the thriller).
  2. Add recognizable elements (boy meets girl, love triangle, guy gets kidnapped).
  3. Have characters breathe, speak, fish, sing karaoke, even sleep, until tension is at desired consistency.
  4. Keep conflict sealed, muffled, or internalized.
  5. Address sex. Amount may vary, given movie genre.
  6. Stir intermittently or mixture will freeze.
  7. When delivering contrived action or conventional melodrama, underplay it. Do NOT overheat.
  8. If someone must be killed, do not do it in the final scene.
  9. If possible, use snow globe as weapon.
  10. Serve ending ambiguously and cool.

Voilà! You thought you were getting an affair, a love story, or a hostage crisis. Surprise. You've been served a character study, MuSe style. MuSe films are an acquired taste, and are thought to signify “sophistication” because of their restraint. Viewers who crave a more traditional story engine feel cheated by and even hate the MuSe film. Be careful when you awaken these people during the credits. They scream and hurl empty boxes of Goobers at you. It is quite a sight.

Robert Redford and Willem Dafoe
Willem Dafoe (right) herds Robert Redford through the woods in The Clearing.

Indeed, The Clearing (directed by Pieter Jan Brugge, who produced films like Heat and The Insider) attempts to contribute to this genre. It is a sheep in wolf's clothing. It looks like a thriller (albeit psychological). But since most of its thrilling moments involve character exploration, be warned. It's a MuSe film.

The Clearing begins on a quiet, weekday, Pennsylvania morning in the back yard of wealthy married couple, Wayne and Eileen Hayes (Robert Redford and Helen Mirren). Though the duo is not a paragon of affection, there is a remarkable air of war-buddy companionship between them. They exchange minimal conversation, and Wayne goes off to work leaving Eileen to her daily swim. While edging out of his driveway, Wayne is kidnapped at gunpoint by unemployed Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe). When Wayne does not show up for that evening's dinner party, Eileen calls the police, and an investigation is launched. The couple's two adult children, Tim (Alessandro Nivola) and Jill (Melissa Sagemiller) keep Mom company while the FBI hostage unit devises a strategy to get Wayne delivered safely back to Eileen and The Fam.

Now, being a MuSe film, the questions The Clearing wants to ask are not: Where is Wayne? How much ransom money? and How are they going to catch Arnold? but rather, What kind of men are Wayne and Arnold? and What is the climate in the Hayes home?

Toward this end, the film's narrative alternates between the dynamic of captor/captive and Eileen's reflections on her marriage as she struggles with what to do. Wayne and Arnold hike through the Pennsylvania woods, exchanging life stories and revealing their complementary characters. Wayne is a self-made man who has taken too many risks. Arnold is a broken man who didn't take enough of them. Both have suffered. Both love their wives. This exchange is played so gracefully by Redford and Dafoe, you want them to keep talking, and forget that one of them is being held against his will.

But there is a hostage crisis in the house. (Note Step #6.)

Eileen is a stealthy force. Without going for a hanky, she is candid with the FBI about her husband's business dealings, affairs, and workaholic nature. Despite their past and present marital circumstances, you can see that Eileen loves her husband. She warmly recounts stories of him to her children. She copes surprisingly well with catastrophe, to the point of eeriness. Due largely to Mirren's most excellent performance, she reveals herself as both brains and backbone of the Hayes family, and The Clearing 's most realized character.

As the story toggles back and forth from long take to longer take, the film is fully exposed as being “not just another thriller.” You begin to admire this first-time director for not resorting to canned action sequences in favor of character development. Words like “integrity” and “sophistication” start to come to mind.

Then, it happens. Brugge inserts a canned pseudo-action sequence. Not long or exciting enough to quell the anti-MuSe viewer, it falls flat. If you were enjoying the film, it yanks you out, and calls the director's intent into question. It contradicts everything The Clearing was supposed to be.

What is worse, while Mirren's character keeps unfolding, Dafoe and Redford's characters begin to act like cardboard hero/villain. This makes the film—from that point on—uneven. Despite this inconsistency, The Clearing boasts some first class acting. You could see it for Mirren's performance alone, which might even warrant an award nomination. Or you could see it to have something to discuss at cinephile cocktail parties. I can hear the banter now:

Stella: You don't understand, Tyler. The Clearing has a muted sensibility. The cats and mice are in our heads. It's brilliant.

Tyler: So why does Redford morph into Rambo? Step #7, Hellooo?!

Stella: This is fabulous brie.

Tyler: It's organic…

Review © July 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 Fox Searchlight Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

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