The Clearing is far from perfect, but it's the rare instance of a well-done American chamber drama. "Chamber drama" is Ingmar Bergman's term for a movie featuring a small group of characters, a few sets, and with the focus more on human interaction than, say, killing Doctor Octopus before he builds his doomsday machine.
While Bergman did a great job making a couple dozen of these chamber dramas, American directors have not had much success with them. Other than John Cassavetes, pretty much no major American cineaste is known for the form.
And with good reason: the chamber drama requires a lot of respect for the audience's ability to figure things out on their own; it calls for intense and yet understated acting; and it demands the ability to write a script that focuses on human values without becoming schmaltzy or providing pat answers or heartwarming platitudes.
The Clearing almost succeeds at all of this. The acting is mostly spot-on, though with perhaps a bit too much American-style star-power showiness. The script is largely natural and only goes in for easy manipulation and simple explanation on a couple of occasions, and there's little in the way of simplicity here.
The best performance, and the one most likely to slide into the background, is given by Helen Mirren. Playing opposite Robert Redford's automatically larger-than-life presence, she remains unshakably in character.
Her work is at its strongest in the middle of the film, after her husband (Redford) has been kidnapped. He's gone for several weeks, yet whenever Mirren needs to talk to her family, she shows no signs of weakness or fear, putting on the most sincere smile you've ever seen.
It's so sincere, and so perfect, that it conveys something else. Without trembling her lip or winking at the audience in any way, Mirren is able to express a complexity that not only escapes most actors; it escapes most humans in their actual emotional displays.
Robert Redford, as her wealthy husband, pretty much plays the part of Robert Redford, but that's why we love him. Redford's acting style is sort of a cross between Spencer Tracy's and John Cusack's, in that he's eerily natural, and yet at the same time doesn't act like anyone you've ever met. The only thing that gets in the way of his performance is the fact that his face, ravaged as it is by the acidic sands of time, is still so incredibly recognizable, and he exudes so much star-power, that it's kind of like staring at a light bulb: fascinating, but it blinds you to the subtleties of the thing.
Most of his scenes are with Willem Dafoe, who plays his kidnapper. Strangely, Dafoe is now playing the villain in a movie opening opposite Spider-Man 2, whereas he previously played Spider-Man's foe The Green Goblin, who had the amazing superpower of being able to chew scenery and shoot emote beams out of his face.
He's much better here, but even John Ashcroft could have given a better performance than what Dafoe turned in for Spider-Man. Even in The Clearing, though, Dafoe can be a bit stagey, and his acting style sometimes seems like a collection of effects rather than a cohesive whole. This contrasts strongly with the more seamless performances of Redford and Mirren, but it doesn't bring the film down. Except when he has to deliver some poorly written dialogue about losing his job and loving his wife and being just like your cuddly next door neighbor except for the part about thinking it's morally OK to commit a felony if, you know, you really feel like it.
But there isn't too much of that dialogue, and most of what goes on between Redford and Dafoe works reasonably well. It's certainly helped by the light-handed touch of composer Craig Armstrong, who mostly lets the action speak for itself, and by the intimate, muddy and very saturated photography of Denis Lenoir.
Other than some weak dialogue, the only other flaw in the film is that it telegraphs the ending about 20 minutes in. It doesn't really matter, I suppose, if you know what's going to happen, but in a story like this, there's traditionally an element of suspense, and that's largely lacking here.
Perhaps it's for the best: Suspense might just have gotten in the way of enjoying the beautifully shot performances, and that's what this film is really about. It's not a large film, nor an ambitious one, but I can't imagine a true film fan who wouldn't enjoy it. What it does have that sets it apart are a few perfect moments, which is more than you get out of most movies, or indeed, most of anything.