Director: David Matalon
Writer: David Matalon
Producer: Mark Mathias Sayre, Jonathan Jay Piumelli, Zack Blinder
Stars: Liam McIntyre, Aundrea Smith, Steven Swadling, Sydelle Noel
Stranded and separated while camping, a desperate father must fight his way through a zombie horde to rescue his daughter.
Tom has an awkwardly frosty relationship with his preteen daughter Mira. Part of their problem has to do with nearly nonexistent chemistry between actors Liam McIntyre and Aundrea Smith and, for that matter, Sydelle Noel as the wife/mother whose name no one will remember. No wonder Mira feels like she¡¯s growing distant from dad. Everyone exhibits the collective charisma of hired hands who met for the first time at a table read two weeks ago, not an emotionally rich family invested in a dozen years together.
Tom is also unusually aggressive about how he insultingly condescends to his daughter. Overhearing Mira telling mom about the naturalist badge she hopes to earn for picking flowers in Girl Scouts, Tom can¡¯t resist the manly man urge to rain all over the girl¡¯s enthusiasm. He stops working on his truck long enough to lament that when he was her age, Tom learned ¡°real stuff¡± like Morse code and how to build fires, ¡°not this puppy cuddling whatever.¡± Incredulously unconcerned with his wife hissing through clenched teeth to be quiet, Tom needles Mira with another challenge. ¡°If a bear comes at you in the woods, what are you gonna do, bake it a cake?¡±
With this introduction, ¡°The Clearing¡± sets the stage perfectly for a daddy-daughter bonding adventure. Tom should learn humility when Mira¡¯s proclivity for technology demonstrates its value to her disbelieving dad. Mira might even see Tom¡¯s POV when his skills as a rugged outdoorsman prove their practicality. No matter what, each of them will come to understand the other person better as their experience compels Tom and Mira to collaborate while bringing them closer together.
Except that¡¯s not what happens. Forced at wifepoint to forego poker with the boys, Tom takes his daughter camping in a clearing. She pouts. He puts up with it. Their unspoken rift eventually comes out after Mira openly accuses Tom of wishing he had a son, prompting Tom to reassure his daughter he is proud of the young woman she is.
The big block of ice between them doesn¡¯t have a chance to melt any further. A brief news blip on the radio vaguely mentions something about the CDC. A little later, zombies sprinting with ¡°28 Days Later¡± ferocity descend on the duo and they become separated. A ravenous horde traps Tom in the camper, leaving Mira on her own in the wilderness. For the two of them to reconnect, Tom will have to put all of his survivalist knowledge to the ultimate test of MacGyver-like invention.
You hear that Mira? When dad tells you your interests are, and I quote, ¡°stupid,¡± you¡¯d better listen! Turns out flower picking really is useless when up against adversity. Morse code, which becomes how Tom and Mira communicate across a distance without attracting attention, isn¡¯t outdated after all. In a totally tin-earred mangling of the meaning the movie means to have, ¡°The Clearing¡± teaches Mira the one-sided lesson that Tom was right along. Stuff your ¡°puppy cuddling whatever¡± and let¡¯s ¡°American Ninja Warrior¡± our way through this gauntlet of limb-ripping lunatics! How¡¯s that for a heartwarming message?
¡°The Clearing¡¯s¡± purpose disappears deeper into quicksand due to drowning in a runtime that¡¯s a solid hour longer than this bony narrative needs. Mira develops a quick crush on a boy at a community cookout with nearby campers. Tom¡¯s wedding ring doesn¡¯t stop him from having an oddly intimate conversation with a woman at the same gathering. Other people aren¡¯t really part of the big picture though. ¡°The Clearing¡± concentrates on the A arc of Tom fighting to find a way to Mira, leaving almost all subplot potential to fall on the floor for a trampling.
The film doesn¡¯t under-deliver on action. Skip-frame cinematography highlights hectic herky-jerkiness as Tom exits out the camper¡¯s door only to be met by a menacing flurry of flailing arms and gnashing teeth. Tom then tries an overhead hatch, but finds bloody battles waiting for him on the roof as well. Maybe he¡¯ll try his luck with the door once more? Nope, still a sh*t show outside. What now? The roof again? Why not? I mean sure, he¡¯s already encountered defeat on that path multiple times, but how else can ¡°The Clearing¡± fill 80 minutes?
Although it¡¯s packed with activity, this rinse-and-repeat cycle of Tom being repelled back to square one in scene after repetitive scene always feels intended to prolong the plot, not advance it. Such sequences squeeze from the most boring bits of zombie cinema too. Tom fights the infected, fortifies his stronghold, futilely seeks help over a radio, then erases the checkmarks and runs through this shortlist all over again.
A distracting antagonist desperately dives into the mix about two-thirds of the way in. ¡°The Clearing¡± doesn¡¯t know what to do with him either. In typical zombie film fashion, the man reveals himself to be a wolf in ranger¡¯s clothing, concerned only with saving himself at the expense of anyone who gets in his way. Following a fight, Tom ends up in handcuffs at the mercy of this weirdo anxious to kill him.
I¡¯ve no idea how the man manages to get 200 pounds of unconscious muscle through a two-foot opening eight feet above his head since the movie never shows that part. ¡°The Clearing¡± has more immediate motivations to ignore anyway. Stuck with what to do next, the script strangely makes the man uncuff Tom so they can have a follow-up fisticuff. Surely there are easier ways to write a way up to the roof of the camper, but this is what ¡°The Clearing¡± comes up with in its ongoing struggle to move from one beat to the next.
Save for some glaringly obvious digital blood and fire FX, ¡°The Clearing¡± is mostly shot and edited well. Even with a single location and mainly one actor, the low budget usually stays concealed so the movie doesn¡¯t look like a typical DIY effort shot on the cheap in a public park.
That¡¯s about the only compliment that can be mustered however. Zombie fans have about as much use for a story this shallow as they do for a bottle opener when the cooler only contains cans. That¡¯s a simplistic analogy fighting for relevancy, although ¡°simplistic¡± and ¡°fighting for relevancy¡± are two fitting terms for a film that¡¯s as ¡°been there, done that, can¡¯t stop yawning¡± as ¡°The Clearing.¡±
Review Score: 40