Good producers do not necessarily make for good directors. Irwin Winkler, the director of De-Lovely), who has produced some of Scorsese's best films, fell short behind the camera. And now joining his ranks is Pieter Jan Brugge, the producer of Michael Mann's Heat and The Insider, who makes his directorial debut in “The Clearing”.
Brugge's track record must have helped him get three experienced actors, Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, and Willem Dafoe, all undoubtedly intrigued by what on paper must have seemed a subtle character-driven mystery. Sadly, the film neither works as a suspenser or as a dissection of a long, stale marriage. Nor is The Clearing effective as a star vehicle for the first teaming of Redford and Mirren. Brugge's tasteful discretion and subtlety result in a listless drama that's all talk and no action, and even the talk is not particularly poignant.
The first ten minutes are promising, cashing in on Redford's stoic manner and strong physical presence, even if he has to play a character with the most clich name possible, Wayne Hayes; the name sounds like a Bruce Wills hero in a standard actioner. A shrewd, self-made businessman, Hayes' wealth comes from the rental car business.
When the story begins what appears to be a typical morning for Hayes and wife Eileen (Mirren) in their coldly opulent home turns out to be a nightmare. At a gunpoint, Hayes, clueless, is abducted in his driveway by Arnold Mack (Dafoe), a hit man for hire.
The story then splits into two narratives (one in the outdoors, the other indoors) that unfold in different time frames. In the first, Mack is taking Hayes through the dense forests outside Pittsburgh to meet the people who have hired him.
Trying to gauge his adversary and his motives, Hayes initiates a cat-and-mouse dialogue, a futile exercise that goes nowhere. Violating its own premise and promise, the tale intimates that Hayes and Mack have crossed paths, but it's never clear who Mack's working for, or what motivates him.
Later, it turns out that Mack is a loser, a bitter man who somehow slipped through the cracks of a heartless corporate world. Is Mack seeking revenge against Hayes and/or against a system that had victimized him
Back at home, the parallel story chronicles Eileen interaction with her children and grandchild, various FBI agents, and eventually the ransom demands. During the investigation, trying to figure out the mystery behind her husband's disappearance, Eileen admits that Hayes once had an illicit affair but it's now over.
Like her hubby, Eileen is clueless. Does The Clearing mean to suggest that you can live with the same person for decades without ever getting to know him
The shifting back and forth between the two stories is detrimental in terms of tension building. Just as you begin to get involved in the interaction between the two adversaries, the action goes back to Hayes' wife and her entourage.
A film starring Redford and Helen Mirren is clearly meant for adult audiences and indeed the film's ambience is emotionally mature. The film aims to be thought-provoking, a suspense thriller for the thinking man. But, in this case, maturity translates into an undernourished drama and understated feelings.
Portraying a man whose entire life has been defined by his status as an underdog, Redford presents a quiet veneer that carries his character for a while. In the process, though, Hayes is forced to reexamine his ethical code as well as all the people he's betrayed in his life, including his wife. However, all this is done silently and internally.
Though a fine actress, Mirren can't bring out the subdued drama of the betrayed wife to the surface, even when she visits her husband's mistress. Eileen is meant to be a proper wife and mother who has repressed her feelings for her husband and her children for too long. You expect some intense confrontations between wife and mistress, and especially wife and husband, but all the potentially explosive scenes unfold in the same calmly moderate rhythm. The whole movie is so low-key that when the climax finally arrives it leaves no impact.
The Clearing is a film in which not only the protagonists but also the villain is mild-mannered and considerate. Mack allows Hayes to remove his coat when it's too hot. Dafoe is one of the few actors who can effortlessly project menace and craziness but here he's asked to play a reasonable and sensitive killer!
Brugge's determination to avoid visual and thematic clichs of the suspense genre is admirable. However, he goes to the opposite extreme, trusting too much in his audience's intelligence, refusing to manipulate expectations. Decorous and nicely crafted, the movie is neither wrenching nor gripping; it's just listless. The restrained tone tests the limits of the viewers' patience-and the very definition of what constitutes a suspense mystery, which is how the film is being sold.
The Clearing is devoid of the juice and the quickening of the pulse that make thrillers enjoyable.