The Good: Excellent acting, Decent characters, Intriguing plot, Generally good pacing
The Bad: "Twist" is not much of one, Somewhat problematic casting/character design
The Basics: When Arnold and Wayne meet, The Clearing explores how dependent the lower middle class is on the forces of production in a generally entertaining movie.
Have you ever heard the phrase, "One good turn deserves another?" I'm trying to apply that to a review, perhaps in a bit of a surreal way. I picked up The Clearing, a movie I was surprised I had never heard of despite its powerful cast (Robert Redford, Willem Dafoe, and Helen Mirren). I picked it up and watched it without reading the back, without reading reviews, a cold viewing. Now, obviously, I can't write a completely cold review to give readers the same experience, but I've decided to try an experimental review for a movie that tries something experimental in order to recommend a movie and give the viewer the best chance of a cold viewing while preparing them to like the movie.
This review will, therefore, not follow my standard approach of introduction, plot review, character/acting/effect assessment and/or social commentary. It will be that type of review, but I won't mention anything about the plot. Those who enjoy this review and play along - by picking up The Clearing - will hopefully leave comments to support the idea that a cold viewing or that the review (mostly) adequately prepared the viewer for the experience. It also hinges some on not reading other reviews (sorry!) because they might say something about the plot. Here goes!
Pieter Jan Brugge, a writer/director I had honestly never heard of before, co-wrote and directed a short film in 2004 called The Clearing. It stars Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, and Willem Dafoe and the film essentially follows two parallel stories which the awake viewer will easily observe are out of sync. That is that the "a-story" is not occurring at the same pace as the "b-story." To Pieter Jan Brugge's credit, he doesn't seem to be trying to be terribly clever about it. This is not a The Usual Suspects (reviewed here!) where there is a huge reversal at the end that the viewer sits up and says "ah-ha!" Instead, it seems as the director wants to create an emotional gravity to the events of The Clearing that is best expressed through the mirroring of the character's journeys.
Wayne Hayes, a very successful businessman, is married to Eileen Hayes and the two seem like a very settled, busy couple at the top of the socioeconomic ladder. Wayne is preoccupied with business and on the day the film begins, he pays more attention to the dog than to his wife. Eileen seems quite concerned with keeping up appearances and while she appears to have real affection for Wayne, she prioritizes her plans that allow them togetherness at the end of the day through gentle nagging in a way that makes Wayne's reactions somewhat understandable. Wayne has the affect of a man who has been going about the same day for years, including the dialogue he has with his wife.
Arnold Mack, then, is a man plagued by a sense of being wronged and a desperation to achieve the economic stability he feels was robbed of him. He meets Wayne and the two interact, which cause the action of the movie and all of the conflict. Arnold is the representation of lower-middle class desperation to hang onto the crumbs given by the upper class. In an almost Marxist way, Arnold's interaction with Wayne becomes a demand for the have-nots to get from the haves.
What makes the movie work is that neither Arnold nor Wayne are reduced to types. While Arnold has an understanding of his economic role and the status of Wayne, the two talk as individuals. Wayne exhibits empathy for Arnold's condition, he expresses some sadness over the plight of Wayne's family as a result of economic downturns. Arnold, for his part, continues to exhibit his understanding of Wayne's humanity. They talk about the importance of family, love, the nature of truth and their children. Their dialog becomes a journey toward understanding and one might argue that the resolution to the movie is director Brugge's ultimate statement on class understanding.
While Wayne and Arnold progress a dialogue and relationship, Eileen begins a journey of her own. In Brugge's intriguing way, he creates a new relationship between Wayne and Eileen by Eileen relating to Wayne's absence. While Wayne is with Arnold, Eileen begins to relearn her husband and her journey is one of loneliness and rediscovery. It is a clever balance as Eileen explores her feelings for herself and her family through accepting Wayne's absence, while threaded throughout her story she begins to learn more about Wayne and his importance to her life. She brings a very human journey to a story that could easily be reduced to a class conflict.
A lot of what makes the movie work is embodied by Helen Mirren, who plays Eileen. Mirren is required to play off herself, a good amount of time. The Clearing has moments that have an almost PBS or BBC feel where reaction shots for Mirren are followed out of rooms to develop the full emotional impact of what she is going through. Mirren creates a character who is boldly progressing along a compelling character journey from accessory housewife to actualized individual. A lot of the movie survives because of Mirren's ability to create subtle affect with facial movements, furtive glances and the way she carries her body.
Willem Dafoe and Robert Redford play off one another quite well, but there is a problem with them. You might not guess it - somehow director Pieter Jan Brugge makes it happen - but Willem Dafoe and Robert Redford look an awful lot alike. Okay, they don't naturally, no. But Brugge manages to light the two, use camera angles and somehow emphasize the facial structure and flaws of each man's eyes, forehead and jaws to suggest a bond between them. Seriously. I waited throughout The Clearing for the revelation that Wayne and Arnold were half-brothers, so closely are they made to resemble one another at points in the movie. I mention this because it surprised me that the two could resemble each other, especially when perspiring, and that it creates an atmosphere that ultimately has a sloppy quality to it as opposed to an intelligent one. Unless, of course, one wishes to argue that Brugge is illustrating a bond between the middle and upper classes vis a vis Arnold and Wayne. Brugge could - if we wish to be generous - be suggesting that both Arnold and Wayne are slaves to the same system through their physical similarities. I would say it's a stretch to justify casting that was poorly conceived or direction that was purposely misleading.
Dafoe continues his history of strong roles with Arnold Mack. Dafoe wisely plays Arnold as gently cunning, smart and desperate as opposed to any way over-the-top. Dafoe wisely emphasizes the humanity of Arnold's desperation at the hands of his employment circumstance as opposed to any elements of his life and circumstances he has control over. He plays off Redford with a natural chemistry and conversational rhythm that is very real.
Similarly, Robert Redford manages to create a fairly memorable persona with Wayne. Wayne is clearly a man used to being in control and Redford infuses the dignity of Wayne with eyes that express fear over the potential loss of all he has worked for. Despite the easy dialogue between Redford and Dafoe as they play off one another, Redford always maintains an air - with Dafoe - of humanity that grounds the movie.
Ultimately, The Clearing works, though it is certainly not a great movie. The problem with the casting is a big one. The plot is so straightforward as to be unsurprising and while Pieter Jan Brugge plays with narrative time to illustrate and emphasize the relationships in the movie over the plot, the resolution is not terribly surprising.
At ninety-five minutes long, the viewer need not wait long for anything to happen in The Clearing and the pace is generally one that moves along, despite the PBS-type moments with Eileen. Is it worth a viewing? Certainly. Anyone who likes a decent character study or has issues with the executions of capitalism will find something to enjoy in The Clearing as ultimately, it is the story of two relationships personal and economic and how they relate to one another. And the acting surfs the movie to a place that makes it worthwhile.
For other works with Helen Mirren, check out my reviews of:
The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy
For other film reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing of all the movies I have reviewed!
© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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