The Clearing (2004)

Cynthia Fuchs

As wealthy, world-weary Pittsburgh businessman Wayne Hayes, Robert Redford is typically low-key.

The Clearing

Director: Pieter Jan Brugge
Cast: Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, Willem Dafoe, Alessandro Nivola, Melissa Sagemiller, Matt Craven
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight
First date: 2004
US Release Date: 2004-07-02 (Limited release)

As wealthy, world-weary Pittsburgh businessman Wayne Hayes, Robert Redford is typically low-key. Or at least he is until Wayne faces what might be termed an existential crisis, when he is kidnapped by the bitter and forlorn Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe). Even then, it takes Wayne some time to work himself into an emotional wallop. And by that time, Arnold is far ahead of him on the rage-against-the-world scale that Wayne hasn't got a chance.

At its least interesting, Pieter Jan Brugge's The Clearing turns on the men's erratic interacting over a day and most of a night, as Arnold makes Wayne climb a grassy mountainside at gunpoint. But as they come to understand one another, or more banally, come to understand themselves, the film also cuts regularly to Wayne's family as they undergo the trauma of his disappearance and then the ransom demands. These include his outwardly gentle and inwardly steely wife Eileen (the redoubtable Helen Mirren), as well as his grown children -- Tim (Alessandro Nivola) and Jill (Melissa Sagemiller) -- who return to the posh Hayes home to comfort their mother in her time of need.

Their arrival is complicated by that of a couple of FBI agents, Ray (Matt Craven) and his partner Kathleen (Gwen McGee). While he insinuates himself into the daily space of his hosts, she tends to hang about in corners, listening as he asks questions. Ray's self-positioning -- at the breakfast table in the morning, in the study late at night -- only adds to the sense of displacement so clearly weighing on Eileen and her kids. Though again, the girl, Jill, tends to hang round the edges of the frame, while the boy, Tim, is more vocally and visibly upset at what the calamity reveals about the family (more specifically, his parents' marriage) he either took for granted or willfully disregarded.

Brought together by a combination of fear, desperation, and disruption that they have plainly not felt before (the Hayes are well off, to say the least), the family structure doesn't so much unravel as it wears away, swiftly and, strangely, given the seeming urgency of the situation, without much resistance. Though the siblings briefly allude to their dad's affair with a former employee, Louise (Wendy Crewson), specifically with regard to their mother's knowledge of it, they spend most of their onscreen time accepting or rejecting advice from their newly resident "experts" in kidnapping, the agents.

Ray looks especially unhappy to be such an expert. Craven is, perhaps ironically, an actor of the Redfordian persuasion, for whom less is, if not exactly more, quite effective. As Ray hunkers down over his cereal at Eileen's table, he looks initially embarrassed but, within seconds, he looks more tired of pretending to be embarrassed. He's seen too many kidnapping cases, you're guessing (because he doesn't say much to that end), and he knows they don't often turn out well. At the same time, this is new emotional territory for Eileen, and she's sequentially disturbed, intrigued, and then, in an odd way, seduced by her guest's exhausted authority. That is, though she's annoyed that Ray pries into her family's secrets (she wants to protect her kids, still, from their father's infidelities), she's also willing to share her loss -- her multiple losses, really -- with a stranger who reveals to her, cryptically, that he has also suffered loss, perhaps even brought it on himself.

And so Ray and Eileen share a certain grief, not exactly articulated, but hovering between them. This doesn't lead to revelation or to resolution, but it does suggest the extent to which sorrow, rage, and regret might shape lives, inside and outside gated enclaves. Ray should be familiar with it, it's his job. But Eileen has also made her peace with grief and disappointment, accepting her deceptive husband, even willing herself to believe he wouldn't deceive her again.

It's this willingness that makes the first moments of The Clearing so dense and enigmatic. Wayne leaves for work, she settles into her routine, swimming in their pretty pool, shopping, preparing for dinner guests whom Wayne doesn't really want to see. When he doesn't show up, she's irritated more than worried ("So sorry Wayne couldn't be here," she murmurs by way of non-cover-up), and only later do you learn how such behavior -- whether a result of distraction or subterfuge -- might be familiar to her, or more precisely, why she's not alarmed. When she finally does call the police, late that evening, she's still partly angry, not imagining the dreadful truth about to descend upon her.

Eileen's emotional and moral difficulties, even including her too melodramatic visit with the mistress, pulse with a kind of believable pain (this in large measure because Mirren conveys her absolute reluctance to let go, in any sense). She nurtures her children's good memories of their father (Tim recalls his father's extraordinary talent to make "you feel like you were the center of the world"), but it costs her. She knows the truth and the lies, and her ability to live with both, even to appreciate both, makes her generous at the same time that she is self-protective.

Much less satisfying, the film's other large chunk of "coming to terms" focuses on Wayne and Arnold, the single day that is intercut with the longer period endured by the family (this juggling of time frames is the film's most complicated maneuver). Here the dialogue (screenplay by Justin Haythe) is alternately improbable and prosaic. "I'd appreciate it if you didn't condescend to me, Wayne," blusters Arnold. "I know how the world works. That's why I'm out here." And with that, uttered early in their journey, Arnold reveals exactly how much he doesn't know, as he imagines his kidnapping scheme is going to grant him not only big money, but big vengeance on a rich guy who never cared about the little people stuck on the ladder rungs below him.

Self-righteous amateur criminal that he is, Arnold has done his homework, using his knowledge of Wayne's mendacity to justify his own actions. Their moral measuring is drearily predictable. Arnold confesses that his wife is unaware of his scheme to zip them away to tropical island paradise, but tries to zing Wayne for his own cheating. He doesn't have a chance against Wayne, successful precisely because he's so smooth. "There are levels of deception, Arnold, and this one's a whopper." Too true.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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