Re-Views: 'The Clearing' (2004)

"The Clearing," a kidnapping drama with Robert Redford and Helen Mirren, first saw the light of day as a "work in progress" at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. This caused a mild stir because Robert Redford happens to be the head of the Sundance Film Festival. On top of that, it's uncommon (though not unheard of) for unfinished movies to screen there, and now here's one that stars the guy who's in charge of the whole thing, and ... well, you can imagine the whispers.

To be fair, this remains the only time Redford has appeared at Sundance as an actor, and none of his directorial efforts have played there. "The Clearing" didn't play in competition -- now THAT would have been something -- and it didn't get any more attention than anything else on the roster. In terms of content and budget and so forth, it fit the usual Sundance mold.

Because of the "work in progress" designation, not many critics reviewed the film at Sundance. Most waited until it was released in theaters later in 2004. (The Sundance version was evidently missing some sound and music elements.) That's when I saw it -- and loved it. I've hardly given the film any thought since then, but at the time it struck me as a powerful drama, as evidenced by my A- review...

What I said then: "The histrionics normally associated with kidnap dramas are not to be found in 'The Clearing.'... Instead, we have a mature, character-based film in which kidnapping is the story, but the people are the substance. Robert Redford, Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe give some of the most thorough performances of their distinguished careers, and first-time director Pieter Jan Brugge ... makes a riveting debut as a filmmaker.... Redford turns 67 this year, and this is the first time he's ever looked it. His face, often seen in close-up, is craggy and expressive, weathered but still full of life and charisma.... Meanwhile, Mirren exudes dignity as the strong, wounded Eileen, a character whose aloofness hides her vulnerability. Her emotional moments -- subdued, controlled and agonizing -- are pitch-perfect; Mirren embraces the role so fearlessly and completely that she ought to be studied by acting students.... Where the movie leads us is interesting, but not nearly as compelling as the journey there." Grade: A- [Here's the complete review.]

(I have one clear memory of the press screening: When someone asked Helen Mirren how tall her husband -- i.e., Robert Redford -- is, she said, "Six foot," and we all snickered. Redford dreams of being six foot.)

The re-viewing: Our situation here is much the same as last week's, where I adored "All the Pretty Horses" and didn't realize until much later that I was in the minority. According to Rotten Tomatoes, only 43% of "The Clearing" reviews were positive, and most of those were more in the B or B- range. What did I see in the film that made me like it so much more than nearly everyone else?

Having now watched it a second time, I have an answer: I don't know.

As noted, it's different from a typical thriller about a kidnapping -- mainly because it's not really a thriller. We're only occasionally meant to feel suspense or tension. The focus instead is on the thoughts, motives, and regrets of the two main characters, played by Mirren and Redford (and, to a lesser extent, on those of the kidnapper, played by Dafoe). Usually the kidnapping is the whole point of the film; here it's merely a catalyst for a character study.

And that's fine. Heck, it's refreshing to see a slightly different take on a familiar plot line. But "The Clearing" goes in several psychological directions and doesn't explore any of them satisfyingly. It's partly about Mirren and Redford's marriage, which was in trouble before he was kidnapped -- but the resolution we get doesn't feel deserved, as if some key scenes are missing. It's suggested that Redford was always too busy making money to have time for his now-grown children -- but that angle doesn't get the attention it needs, either. At times there's the hint of this being about the class system, with working-stiff Dafoe resentful of 1-percenter Redford's success. Once again, though, the idea doesn't go anywhere.

Fortunately, the central performances go a long way toward making the film worthwhile. I don't know if I'd still say that acting students ought to study Mirren's work here -- but they'd do well to study her in general. Her subtle, effective facial expressions in "The Clearing" are a foretaste of her Oscar-winning work in "The Queen." We hadn't seen Redford onscreen at all in three years ("The Last Castle" and "Spy Game" were both 2001), and it felt like ages since he'd done anything this dramatic and serious. Good acting can be riveting even when the material is so-so; in this case, it seems to have made me think the material was better than so-so.

Do I still love this movie? No, and it's not clear why I ever did. I suspect the concept of the parallel-but-not timelines (which is indeed very clever and almost unique) factored more heavily into my evaluation than it should have. Mirren, Redford, and Dafoe all give fine performances, and the movie doesn't drag. But it doesn't quite work as a thriller, a character drama, or a social commentary, and instead addresses each of those angles just passably. It's not bad enough to avoid -- I wouldn't say it's "bad" at all -- and not good enough to seek out. Grade: C+