If a movie exists with less of a point than The Clearing I would like to know about it. Not that it was a bad film in the normal sense of the word, but it just amounted to absolutely nothing. The acting was fine, as was the direction and production. But to what end? Like The Last Days of Patton the wholly unnecessary, little loved and excruciatingly comprehensive sequel to the amazing Patton, the movie can be accurately surmised in a single sentence. For the Last Days of Patton it would be, “A now fat George C. Scott gives us an un-stirring minute by minute account of the last days of the great general deplete of any joy whatsoever.” For The Clearing it would be, “Rich Robert Redford gets kidnapped and killed by a somber William Dafoe while the wife suffers as she becomes the widow.”
I really have no clue as to what this film was trying to express. Rest assured, it did try to say something, but the story was so mangled that you will have no clue as to what. Here’s the story; Robert Redford is this rich guy who cut a bunch of jobs at one point. Dafoe got fired because of Redford’s actions, so Dafoe kidnaps Redford and takes him to a clearing in the woods and shoots him. Dead. Before he kills him, the pair spends the day talking shit, with Redford basically telling Dafoe that he isn’t a real man because he resorts to crime. Again, all this happens on a single day. Meanwhile, you have Redford’s wife (Helen Mirren) dealing with the loss of her husband and the FBI home-invasion unit that sets up shop in the couples vast mansion and gives all sorts of ultimately useless advice to her and her children regarding the best way to bring daddy home safely. This takes several days (it felt like a month). Ultimately she pays a alrge ransom for a dead body to Dafoe, who then manages to get caught spending the money before he goes to jail.
You can see that one of the major flaws of the film (beyond its signifying nothing) is the time frame. Redford is killed in a single day, yet the wife and family suffer for a week. I should mention that the two stories unfold side by side and it becomes wildly annoying that they are not parallel. Now, I am smart enough so as to be able to follow a non-linear story, but ultimately I had to ask, “what’s the point?” I mean, if there is no payoff, why hide the fact that Redford has been dead for most of the film? Anyhow, that little kerfuffle bugged the shit out of me. Worse though, was the fact that some possibly interesting themes were introduced only to be left to wither and die on the vine without being explored. At all. Both David Lynch and Thomas Mann excel in this particular branch of storytelling (see Mann’s The Buddenbrookes). Mann can be forgiven; Lynch can die for all I care. For instance, at one point it looks like maybe the Mrs. was in on the kidnapping. OK, that’s sort of interesting. And it is given exactly thirty seconds of screen time before we are told, “no, Dafoe’s the kidnapper.”
In the end, first time writer/director and long time Michael Mann collaborator Pieter Von Brugge fails at the single most important task of any filmmaker; telling a good story. The twist is that there is no twist; the hook is that there is no hook. Maybe if I had cared one way or the other about any of the characters I might have felt something for them. The loss of a father and a husband, the pain of an otherwise dignified workingman laid off because of corporate, bottom-line greed whose hand is then forced, the plight of the mistress, etc. Instead, I kept looking at the counter on the DVD player, shocked that only 54 minutes had transpired. As it stands, Von Brugge gave us nothing. The characters are introduced, shit happens, and the credits role. In all honesty, The Clearing was as compelling as one of those crime recreations commonly found on America’s Most Wanted, only with a much larger budget and a much smaller point.