*½/**** Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B-
starring Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, Willem Dafoe, Alessandro Nivola
screenplay by Justin Haythe
directed by Pieter Jan Brugge
***½/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras B-
starring Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy
screenplay by Richard Linklater & Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke
directed by Richard Linklater
by Walter Chaw Nothing much happens in Pieter Jan Brugge's The Clearing--so little happens, in fact, that it's difficult to pinpoint what all the to-do was about by film's end. Laid-off everyman schlub Arnold Mack kidnaps car rental magnate Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) from the front gate of his palatial estate. He leads Hayes through the woods to meet up with his partners-in-crime, having a heart-to-heart concerning the dissatisfactions of modern living along the way. Hayes's wife Eileen (Helen Mirren) and grown children (Alessandro Nivola and glassy-eyed Melissa Sagemiller) gather with disaffected FBI agent Fuller (Matt Craven) to field ransom demands and likewise have heart-to-hearts about the dissatisfactions of modern living. Brugge plays with time in interesting ways: the events of the first day with Wayne and Arnold are intercut with the events of several weeks with the Hayes clan. But the picture's biggest trick is making ninety minutes seem like an eternity.
The problem of the film is a tricky one, as The Clearing works mainly as a satire of white folks in the same way that White Chicks does. Honkies are crazy, it seems--unflappable and unfailingly polite in the face of unimaginable rudeness and outrageous fortune. The butt of endless jokes (no soul, no sense of humour), the white stereotype so infuses The Clearing that the entire rhythm of the piece levels out into a protracted hum--white noise, if you will. Arnold is unhappy that he's laid off, that he's living with his father-in-law, and that his wife is the breadwinner (though his wife doesn't mind); Wayne is unhappy because he's been kidnapped--but his wife doesn't really mind, either. Wayne's had an infidelity with an ex-secretary (Eileen's confrontation with her is uncomfortable, if predictably drab), the revelation of which is suggested more than explored. When Wayne's son finds out, it's off-screen with no discernable fallout. The only moments of emotion occur in isolation--the suggestion being that the white upper-crust is far too refined to allow sloppy human feeling to impose on polite company.
Sterile and disinteresting, then, The Clearing is a hagiography for Wayne, and at times it feels like a Redford shrine. There's scarcely a ripple when a rock is thrown in the Hayes pond, and all the conversations about working too much and not gathering rosebuds while ye may amount to so much piffle when everything turns out so well. Wayne's philosophically okay, Eileen is just fine, the kids are all right: even with no possible happy ending there's sort of a happy ending anyway, making The Clearing's desperate attempts at conjuring tension through slow push-ins and rack focuses seem silly at best. The film is like a Sean Penn-directed film without the performances, poignancy, or pain. There's nothing happening on the surface (something cued by Craig Armstrong's aggressively inoffensive tinkling piano score), and there's nothing happening underneath, either.
It's possible to elevate nothing happening into an art, however, which is something that brat auteur Richard Linklater has been doing since the beginning of his career. He regains some of his indie credibility after the broadly appealing School of Rock with Before Sunset, the sequel to his 1995 slacker classic Before Sunrise. It's just Ethan Hawke (Jesse) and Julie Delpy (Celine) playing slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, walking through the streets of Paris (Vienna in the first film), talking about politics and love. In that simplicity there's a deceptive, evolving depth. The two reunite eight years after the breathless romance of their first meeting and bittersweet separation: he's become a novelist, documenting that brief encounter, and she's become a political activist. The first moments of their reunion, they dance around "freedom fries" and American imperialism--foreplay in the new millennium. They move onto the difficulties of maintaining passion and the tragedy of missed opportunities, before ending ambiguously on a Nina Simone song and a smile.
Before Sunset grows in the mind like Before Sunrise did before it. With Hawke also a published novelist, when the conversation turns to an unhappy marriage with children, the transparency between Hawke and his character bears fruit in rich, melancholy ways. The same sometimes awkward, sometimes mellifluous pitch and yaw of flirtation and conversation, debate and argument, infuses the film with this sense of innate familiarity. We're not used to movies being paced like this, but we're used to talking to people--and in time that experiential fluency makes the framework of the film as strong as it is invisible. Smart and stimulating, Before Sunset is something like a time capsule for intelligent discourse in a time and place (and industry) that puts less and less of a premium on such things. There's not much on the surface, for sure, but its undertow is seductive and ferocious. Originally published: July 16, 2004.
by Bill Chambers Fox issues The Clearing on DVD in a nice but erratic 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer: Although I wouldn't have minded the shifts in definition so much if they were more aesthetically grounded, sometimes the crispness of the image varies between consecutive shots. That being said, expect an overall gleam that would befit Helen Mirren's Eileen. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundmix is almost belligerently unassuming; one of the voices heard on the disc's yak-track swells with pride as he quotes a review for The Clearing that said it was "not for the ADD crowd," and though I, too, am tired of spastic editing and volcanic bass for the sake of it, surely there's a happy medium? While we're on the subject, if the film isn't for the ADD crowd, my god, who could possibly be the audience for this boring-as-a-dog's-ass commentary? Interesting that its three participants--director Pieter Jan Brugge, screenwriter Justin Haythe, and editor Kevin Tent--seem to love the picture so, since they characterize it as regrettably compromised in their optional commentary for eight deleted scenes. (The two most noteworthy of which restore dialogue to the veritable non-speaking parts played by Gwen McGee and Melissa Sagemiller.) Haythe's entire screenplay (draft information not provided), presented as black-on-white text, rounds out the supplementary material along with The Clearing's trailer and an "Inside Look" teaser for Hide and Seek. Dakota Fanning as a brunette bad seed...what next, Angelina Jolie as Colin Farrell's mother?
The masterful Before Sunset arrives on DVD from Warner in a lovely, if unremarkable 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen rendering outfitted with similarly utilitarian Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. This is a movie, unlike The Clearing, that can renounce Hollywood gloss and still have something to show for it. (And I must say, I don't remember the film looking or sounding much different on the big screen.) In Sam Hurwitz Productions' 10-minute featurette "On the Set of Before Sunset", director Richard Linklater, stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and producer Anne Walker-McBay are so forthcoming about the genesis of the sequel that this piece is either just the right length or way too brief. Perhaps it isn't surprising that Delpy is more loquacious than her fellow interviewees, as she is said to have been responsible for kick-starting the project with a 40-page chunk of material. Pre-menu trailers for Criminal, A Home at the End of the World, and We Don't Live Here Anymore complete the platter. Originally published: November 9, 2004.