[box cover]

The Clearing

As a producer, Pieter Jan Brugge has made a name for himself by shepherding distinctively smart and somewhat anti-commercial fare through the studio system, films like Heat, Bulworth and The Insider; probing and provocative product that roil the national discourse a bit and leave audiences asking questions as they shuffle out into the lobby. It's a shame, then, that Brugge chose to bring such thematically timid material to the screen in making his feature directing debut with The Clearing (2004). A small-scale melodrama lightly tricked out with questions of class and corruption (corporate and emotional), the film stars Robert Redford as Wayne Hayes, a prominent and quite successful business executive who gets kidnapped by a former, lower-level employee, Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe). As Arnold whisks Wayne out into the Smoky Mountain wilderness, Brugge and his scenarist, Justin Haythe, split the narrative, following also the FBI investigation run out of Wayne's house on the orders of his wife, Eileen (Helen Mirren). This is particularly tricky — the former unfolds in one day, while the latter drags on over weeks — and a little too clever for its own good, one huge problem being the more one learns about Wayne, through either narrative strand, the less noble he seems. Worse, he appears to have scant reason to fight for his survival should it come down to that; thus, lowering the stakes as the story progresses. His marriage to Eileen has predictably been compromised by an ongoing affair, while he appears to have so fully realized the American Dream, there's little to justify rolling out of bed in the morning save for roughhousing in the backyard with the loyal family dog. As for Arnold, he's less desperate than self-pitying, which might be a more realistic trait for a man driven to such an extreme, but still unbalances his dynamic with Wayne. Meanwhile, Eileen suffers quietly, first for her husband's welfare, then for being a dupe when his affair is brought to light. At her side are their two children, Tim (Alessandro Nivola) and Jill (Melissa Sagemiller), neither of whom figure critically in the briskly unfolding imbroglio. The only element distinguishing The Clearing from some random made-for-television movie is its cast. And, to their credit, they greatly enliven this otherwise unimaginative yarn with excellent understated performances. Just as it took his former onscreen buddy Paul Newman a good decade past retirement age to play "old" convincingly, so it has gone with Redford, who is finally credible as a man in the autumn of his years. If it sounds like hyperbole to say that his work here may be the most accomplished of his career, remember that, unlike Newman, Redford has never been willing to step outside of his movie star persona and really act. It should come as no surprise to note that Redford's intensity is matched by Dafoe, who is dependably unsettling as the troubled Arnold, and Mirren, who works subtle wonders with her thankless role as Eileen. Also strong are supporting actors like Larry Pine and the long-suffering Diana Scarwid, whose been waiting for a role worthy of her considerable talents since her excellent performance in Richard Donner's gem from 1980, Inside Moves. With a cast this top-to-bottom talented, it's impossible to make an unwatchable film, though Brugge comes awfully close. Fox presents The Clearing in a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with solid Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a feature-length commentary from Brugge, Haythe, and editor Kevin Tent that's as inconsequential as the film, six deleted scenes with optional commentary, the entire screenplay, and the theatrical trailer. There's also an "Inside Look" at an upcoming Fox riff on The Bad Seed called Hide and Seek. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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