Robert Redford doesn't make as many movies as a lot of stars, and the last few he has made have not all been howling successes. He obviously doesn't need the exposure, so maybe he keeps going to prove to his fans he's still alive and well. Or to himself. In any case, his latest venture, 2004's "The Clearing," may not be the most exciting or well-focused drama of the year, but it manages to engage our intellect most of the time and keep us guessing well up to the end.
One thing that can be said for Redford is that he is aging well. Not only does he still look good for his years, he's playing characters with solid dramatic content rather than the sex appeal of his youth. In "The Clearing" he plays a rich, middle-aged business executive of a rather ordinary nature who finds himself in a most extraordinary situation. He is kidnapped and held for $10,000,000 ransom.
Like the other main characters in the film, we find out little about Redford's Wayne Hayes beyond a perfunctory history. He's a self-made man, the former head of a successful car-rental agency; he's got a wife and two grown children; he's got a fancy home in the country; and he's carrying on an affair with a past employee. Now, in most cases it's good to know a lot about the victim in a mystery in order for the story to generate more suspense. If we feel compassion for the victim, we worry him or her more. But in this case, the screenwriter purposely keeps us distant from the man. Perhaps the writer knows that if we are too sympathetic with a character played by a famous movie star, we won't worry so much that he'll come to harm. We expect sympathetic characters played by famous movie stars to survive the day. So, in "The Clearing" anything can happen, and it keeps us more on edge.
Eileen Hayes, the wife, is played by Helen Mirren. Eileen is even harder to figure out than her husband. She is at first icy and aloof, seeming to dominate her husband. Then we learn that she is aware of her husband's affair. Does she still love him, or could she be a part of the kidnapping plot herself?
And there's the kidnapper, Arnold Mack, played by Willem Dafoe. He is the opposite of Hayes; he's a drab, middle-class loser, a guy out of work and out of luck. He tells Hayes he's doing this job for the money, delivering Hayes to a cabin deep in the woods where he'll drop him off for others. But along the way, Mack reveals to Hayes a good deal more personal information about himself. Would he do this if he knew Hayes were going to come through the ordeal alive? Or is he just overly friendly, or simply slow-witted? Mack uses "Please" and "I'm sorry" a lot, as though he had never committed so serious a crime before. Is it part of an elaborate charade to confuse Hayes? I kept seeing Mack, with his hangdog look, being played by William H. Macy, but Dafoe brings a greater element of threat to the part; his demeanor is a shade more sinister than Macy could probably convey.
"The Clearing" is not an action-adventure movie; it's primarily a character study, with its characters deliberately hard to figure out. Secondarily, it's a police procedural, the FBI attempting to track the kidnapper(s) and generally showing us they know less about what they're doing than the wife does. Thirdly, the movie is a marital drama, interestingly, one where the couple is hardly seen together except in flashback.
Most fascinating about the film, however, is the relationship that develops between the Redford and Dafoe characters in the woods. Mack tells Hayes a good deal about himself and his disappointments in life. Then, as things progress, Hayes appears to be dominating Mack, telling him what to do and taking what appears to be control of the course of events.
It's all geared toward making us uncertain how everything is going to turn out, how and when and if the conflicts will be resolved. "The Clearing" is not a typical thriller or a typical whodunnit. It's more of a "I wonder what's going to happen next?" sort of picture. As such, it's different, it's intelligent, and it's involving. The movie is ridiculously rated R for a couple of brief profanities. Blame it on the ratings board.
Maybe it's my faulty vision, but I found the video on this disc all over the place. A very high bit rate and an anamorphic widescreen transfer measuring a ratio about 1.74:1 across my standard-screen HD television should have ensured a beautiful picture. But it's only intermittently beautiful. There is a richness about the colors that we expect from a high bit rate, true, but at least half the scenes in the film looked soft and slightly mushy, too. Nor did dark areas, of which there are many, admit much inner detail. On the other hand, the greens of the forest show up well, and a couple of brightly lit indoor scenes come up in perfect clarity. What's more, the video seemed to improve overall as the movie went on. Maybe the print itself was of variable quality, or maybe my eyesight is going through phrases; I don't know.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics in the English track are wonderfully clean and clear, with a good, deep, resounding bass that makes its presence felt early on and underpins the movie's tension considerably. There is also some good musical ambiance created in the surrounds, along with a few environmental forest noises, but mostly the audio reproduces dialogue, which it does nicely.
We get only the usual assortment of extra goodies on this disc, nothing spectacular or earthshaking. There is an audio commentary with the filmmakers--director Pieter Jan Brugge, film editor Kevin Tent, and screenwriter Justin Haythe. There are six deleted scenes, about fifteen minutes' worth, with optional commentary, again by the filmmakers. And there's a full-length screenplay for the film, which I found interesting for all of about two pages. I'm not sure what we're supposed to do with it--read it in its entirety? If it could be printed out, it might be fun to read along with the actors and see how each scene was shot, but just to read the whole thing off the TV screen seems a chore. The extras conclude with an "Inside Look" at an upcoming Fox project; a widescreen theatrical trailer for "The Clearing"; twenty-four scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles. No informational insert came packaged with the disc I received.
Not everyone is going to appreciate "The Clearing" because it is not exactly what a lot of viewers might be expecting. Although it is about a kidnapping, it is not an action thriller. Instead of relying on continual motion, gun battles, car chases, and things blowing up, it relies on old-fashioned interpersonal relationships, those between the kidnapper and his hostage being the most compelling. I enjoyed it while it was running, but I'm not sure I'd be interested in going back and watching it again. The plot twists are fun, but the characters and dialogue are hardly scintillating enough to want to repeat. Regardless, that first time through can hold you to your seat.