The Clearing
Director: Pieter Jan Brugge. Cast: Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, Willem Dafoe, Matt Craven, Alessandro Nivola, Melissa Sagemiller, Wendy Crewson, Larry Pine, Diana Scarwid, Sarah Koskoff, Elizabeth Ruscio. Screenplay: Justin Haythe.

The Door in the Floor
Director: Tod Williams. Cast: Jeff Bridges, Jon Foster, Kim Basinger, Elle Fanning, Mimi Rogers, Bijou Phillips, Louis Arcella, Donna Murphy, LeAnna Croom, Claire Beckman, Kristina Valada-Viars, Larry Pine, Harvey Loomis. Screenplay: Tod Williams (based on the novel A Widow for One Year by John Irving).


Movies are always being described as a quintessentially popular art form, and sure, in some ways, they are. And yet, whenever mega-corporatized Hollywood trundles out domestic dramas like Pieter Jan Brugge's The Clearing and Tod Williams' The Door in the Floor, both of them so gleaming in their ruling-class sheen, so rooted in the sorrows of the smartly dressed and fabulously wealthy, you realize in a flash what a moneyed venture Hollywood really is. Which is not to say that the movies are necessarily bad, or that wealthy people are necessarily bad, but both, you might say, are especially vulnerable to cruel and slightly circular logic about their own appeal, their alleged depth. In the case of the films, the writers and directors often seem to feel that the casual luxury and insulated serenity in which their characters live are either a) so delectable to audiences that only the worst forms of suffering will provide the necessary dramatic conflict or sufficient ratio of pleasure/pain, or b) so dubious to audiences that we will demand to see the ruling class suffer for their sofas, their swimming pools, their rambling beach-houses. Oddly, the bathetic extremes of private pain by which the filmmakers attempt to lend depth and heart to these fashion-spread characters are then misrecognized by mainstream-media critics and flattered upper-bourgeois audiences as "universal" experiences, windows into the human spirit, or into the nature of family and relationships, or into the ache of the human heart.

True, this is not a new pattern. Hollywood has been making a mint off the lifestyles of the rich forever (and movies, obviously, were not the first artform to think up this trick). But watching a randomly chosen Warner Bros. weepie like Dark Victory, for all that Bette Davis' silk blouses and private stables inform the proceedings—the fact that a rich woman should die such an early death is the implicit emotional crux of the whole picture—one is reminded both of how frequently Golden Age Hollywood took its characters' wealth for granted and of how concertedly the tone and rhythm of the films saw past all that money. Max Steiner's score in Dark Victory is an operatic drawing-out of feelings, instead of what you tend to hear today: tinkling minor-key paeans to the psychic repressions ostensibly being critiqued. While the costumes and sets of Dark Victory are elegant, the film still resides in its close-ups, so that without ever lying about the caste of its cast, Dark Victory can manage an appeal to human experience that doesn't seem restricted to the patrician standpoint of its characters.

Things are rather different now in modern Hollywood, where it is proven again and again that by moving the camera just the slightest bit further from its subjects, by holding establishing shots mere moments longer or editing in a few more scenic vistas than its classical counterparts did, the same kind of film can seem palpably different in its breadth and investments. The Clearing and The Door in the Floor are both rather distantly observed movies, despite the fact that both films unfold through a series of intimate scenarios among small casts of characters. Whoever and whatever we are watching, we are never not watching the picturesque locations, magazine-ready architecture, and cool, cosmetic appointments of decor and dress. You could even argue that basic relationships between kinds of shots have changed from what they used to be. Laura Mulvey and other feminist film theorists famously argued in the 1970s and 1980s that classical Hollywood relied on close-ups, particularly those of women, to found and communicate the emotional life of the movies; all the key action transpired (mostly among men) in two shots and group scenes, but the close-ups set the tone. In The Clearing or The Door in the Floor, though, virtually the opposite is true. Powerhouse, realistically detailed acting by well-cast stars is what drives the plots. Whatever "happens" in these movies happens mostly on the actors' faces, while the wider shots—the silhouette of a converted barn against an East Hampton sky, the diamantine blue of a swimming pool in a manicured backyard—are the points of reference, the framing narrative. Quite literally, the money shots. More than establishing geography, these shots contextualize the specific storypoints within a particular reality, and that reality is emphatically upper-middle-class.

In and of itself, this trend is not a good or a bad thing, though it carries certain risks that only intelligence and vigilance can surmount. The director, the cinematographer, the actors, the editor—all must remember they are making films about a specific class environment and its corresponding idioms. Treating commodified suburban tastefulness or gated-community splendor as totally neutral ground can make a film instantly irritating, immediately irrelevant; skimping on real drama, story arc, and formal technique in hopes of surviving wholly on "tastefulness" is a death sentence, as last fall's The Human Stain so dismally proved. Though critical consensus has generally suggested the reverse, I think the Irving-derived Door in the Floor sinks under its self-aggrandizing notions of human psychology and ersatz profundity, while The Clearing manages a sharp, coherent, and finally impressive story within this rarefied landscape of privilege. It's impossible to say which of Brugge's three headlining actors truly stars in the film. Robert Redford as a kidnapped CEO, Willem Dafoe as the alienated worker who abducts him, and Helen Mirren as Redford's anxious, slow-burning wife are all equally showcased in the film, and "showcased" does seem like the right word. The tony reputations of Redford, Dafoe, and Mirren and the classy good looks of the first and last are perfectly in synch with the self-conscious polish of the whole film, where even the glade to which Redford is rudely hustled looks richly, mintily green.

None of this is accidental. Smartly, first-time director Brugge has made a film that is about the overpowering, homogenizing force of aristocratic insulation, rather than simply exemplifying this force. Justin Haythe's gently subversive screenplay is unavoidably about glamorous people, whose worst crises (abduction by sunlight!) retain a certain glamor; rather than be embarrassed or dishonest about this fact, director Brugge puts it front-and-center, so the specificity of the setting makes the well-worn plot and theme seem new and particular. The movie's first sequence comprises uneasy cross-cuts between Dafoe disguising and fake-moustaching himself in a mirror and Redford and Mirren sharing a poolside breakfast of coffee and polite, lightly affectionate conversation. The eventual juncture of these threads is clear, even if you don't know it's a movie about a kidnapping, but the actors are all good enough to distinguish the predictable from the dull. Dafoe is uncharacteristically restrained, and for once, he looks like a normal person, albeit a terribly sad one. Redford and Mirren avoid the pure cliché of the dehydrated marriage by quietly suggesting that their characters really do like each other, or at least are blanketed by the memory of liking each other. They just don't know how to talk to each other. Lacking the antinomial structure of an American Beauty or, for that matter, a Door in the Floor, we can't assume where The Clearing will head, even if we suspect it will play out a minor variation on themes we've heard before. Where many similar movies try to find direction by dissolving a happy couple or reuniting an estranged one, The Clearing starts amid room-temperature emotions that could go anywhere, or not.

Uneasy cross-cuts remain the informing device of this film, so that even as individual scenes are shrewdly, carefully acted and composed, the relations between them are never quite obvious. It's a clever way of ingraining marital drift, and other kinds of drift, inside the form of the movie. Gradual alienation is how this movie works, it's what we feel as we watch it, as we try, nervously, to make the ingredients match up. With the story structure and editing providing that basis, the actors are free to get at subtler truths, like the disquieting bravado that accompanies Redford's gnawing self-criticism, and best of all, the sense that Mirren is not fearing for her missing husband so much as fearing for her own security if he's lost. Eileen Hayes is a beautiful and well-groomed woman who nonetheless barely exists. Her lifestyle continually erases whatever reachable reserves of emotion she may have possessed, and the biggest credit to Brugge's movie lies in its knowledge that one doesn't transcend decades of social training the minute something drastic happens. It doesn't seem fair or right to call The Clearing a thriller that fails to thrill, or a highfalutin refusal of emotional immediacy, though both critiques have been aired in several reviews—not fair when what Brugge and his cohorts have actually made is a taut drama about people who live apart from their emotions, a drama that rebuts standard assumptions that adults grow in times of crisis, that we always know how to transform on a dime when a situation calls for it.

At the same time, I was fully satisfied by The Clearing as a thriller, because the suspense surrounding the various characters' fates was filtered through a sustained, specific tone. Hence this picture never seems likely to perpetrate that common sin of would-be thrillers, breaking the screenplay's own internal rules or supplementing eleventh-hour information that alters, even invalidates what we were earlier led to believe. By all counts, The Clearing plays fair, and so it plays well. Moreover, it's a unique thriller built to accommodate seemingly irrelevant scenes, several of which lend unexpected depths to the scenario, as in the superlative minutes when Mirren visits her husband's mistress, played by the never-better Wendy Crewson. Even the final scene of The Clearing, when the movie ventures an untypical detour into fantasy, is colored around the edges with the melancholic tension of the rest of the movie. While hardly an artwork for the ages, The Clearing does something crafty and difficult by evoking a handful of genres without settling into any of them. The whole film is imbued with that implosive, unruffled sadness you see in Joan Allen's Ice Storm performance, with refreshingly little of that film's hokey symbolism or showboating period details.

The Door in the Floor, by contrast, is awash in lame symbolism, proud to pimp its salt-air locations and comely actors, and equipped with exactly zero governing notions of human behavior, except what might sound good in the mind of an overreaching novelist. (The type is usually easy to identify, blowing their own cover with that unshakeable tendency to tell stories about the sticky pupation of other novelists.) Again, we have three leads, although this time, surprise, the woman never emerges in any but the gauziest focus, literally or otherwise. Again, we have a family shattered by loss, although this time, the crisis is a buried pretext for the cryptic and rather opaque forms of conduct presented to us. Again, we spend all our time in places that most of us couldn't afford to be in real life, although this time, the quaint visuals and tailored duds are meant to be seductive rather than signal the characters' repression. When Helen Mirren goes clothes-shopping in The Clearing, we know she's avoiding thinking about something; when Kim Basinger sports a fetching little beach ensemble in The Door in the Floor, we wait for the teenage protagonist to steal the clothes and use them as a source for his masturbation fantasies (that is, when he isn't boinking Basinger herself).

Certainly, The Door in the Floor never comes close to managing what The Clearing does: the sense that wealth, public success, and middle-middle-age have driven the characters apart and constrained their emotional range. To be fair, Williams' movie doesn't ever aim for these goals or morals and is almost contrarily disposed. The Door in the Floor wants to see how many tones its basic premise will support, rather than document the single, all-absorbing tone of upper-bourgeois life. Purposefully, and inevitably, given its basis in Irving, The Door in the Floor is sprawling, overstuffed. As a result, its most protean figure, the rangy and erratic and egomaniacal writer played by Jeff Bridges, becomes the emblematic character. Most reviewers familiar with Irving have given The Door in the Floor high marks for approximating the jovial bumptiousness and tragic underpinnings of his prose, and this may well be the case. I haven't read Irving's novels, and given my firm distaste for the best-reviewed adaptations, including this one and The Cider House Rules, I am unlikely to ever go near them. But allowing that the successful duplication of a novel doesn't always mean a good movie, what kind of movie is this? What exactly has been approximated, and is it worth anything?

I was frankly pretty repelled by The Door in the Floor, in part because I loathed the Bridges character, felt nothing for his protegé played by Jon Foster, and couldn't find any reason to take seriously the soft-focus, soft-core conception of the Basinger character. But worse, I didn't like how the narrative had to structure itself in order to make such essentially off-putting and/or uninteresting characters dramatically involving. Bridges and Basinger, by the time we meet them, are riding out the fumes of a marriage that wisped away to nothing when their two sons were killed in a car crash, a fact to which both the beginning and end of this movie are entirely dedicated. You might say that, as the alpha and the omega of The Door in the Floor, the framing story around and within which everything else happens, the deaths of Tom and Timmy Cole are the raison d'Ítre for the whole story. You might say that, and you would be right. This isn't a movie where the deaths of the boys change or explain anything, at least not anything that isn't already clear from the opening frames. It's not a movie that gives us any reason to tolerate its lascivious excesses, its last-summer-in-the-Hamptons weatlh-worship, its arbitrary shifts in register and purpose, except to invoke the all-explaining Deaths Of Children. The killing of Tommy and Timmy are, narratively speaking, the best things that ever happened to these characters: it imparts a dignity that simply isn't there on Basinger's zombotic performance, on the Coles' utterly banal non-rapport, on the precocious prattlings of yet another FanningBot cast as their daughter, on the listless images. It supplies, as it did in the messy second half of In the Bedroom, a pretext for all manner of emotional indulgence and narrative contrivance. And it gives work to some actors who deserve it, though you can't help wishing that the admirably creative Bridges, the promising newcomer Foster, and that queen of thankless roles Mimi Rogers had a better venue.

By the end of the film, as a riot of unnecessary characters and a growing appetite for the ludicrous have taken the picture in new directions without significantly improving it, writer-director Williams grows desperate for a way to tie everything up. So guess what happens? Bridges relays a long, forensic monologue about how exactly his sons met their end. The film is so death-obsessed that it irretrievably blurs the line between which of Bridges' manias and Basinger's tics were in place before the accident and which settled in later. We might plausibly wonder how these two people ever found their way to each other to begin with, given their incontrovertible differences now, but then there's that Trauma question that levels all questions and coercively suspends our doubts that, at a fundamental level, The Door in the Floor doesn't work. We meet a raging beast and a catatonic shell and are provided no compass for how to understand them, though we are given anecdotal reasons to laugh at them or leer at them. Which is another way of saying that The Door in the Floor's death-obsession offers a solemn guise for its sex-obsession, which is no less relentless but continues to imply the rollicking, juvenile movie The Door in the Floor would be if it actually embraced its unslakeable libido and quit pretending to have something to say.

Sometimes, as it happens, you can judge a book by its cover, or, as it were, a movie by its title. The Clearing is what it sounds like: stripped of ornamentation, undeluded about its subjects, lucid about the limits of human behavior. The reticence of the movie is the reticence of its characters; the frustrating stuckness of its plot and the eerie distance between its parallel plots are apt figurations for the social microcosm its people inhabit. The Door in the Floor, meanwhile, is so literal-minded you just know there will eventually be a real door in a real floor. The film takes years to get there, and when it does, it perversely chooses this most literal of moments for its least crude, least overstated gesture. After an hour or so of tedium, your attention is likely piqued at this juncture, and just as swiftly, the movie ends. A sign that there was always a more interesting film barely out of reach, lurking behind the furniture and beneath the varnished floors, if only we'd gotten into it sooner. Grades: Clearing: B; Door: D+


Awards for The Door in the Floor:
National Board of Review: Special Mention for Excellence in Filmmaking

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