The Clearing is a life-and-death movie without an emotional life of its own. It is a gorgeously photographed postcard of the American dream, inscribed on the flip side with the price it exacts from us all—winners, losers and even those of us somewhere in between. The film wants to be a character-driven psychological thriller but sort of idles in the garage after a brisk start, quietly and very politely choking on its own fumes.
Producer turned director Pieter Jan Brugge (The Insider and Heat) co-wrote the story with Honeymoon novelist Justin Haythe after being inspired by a hostage-for-ransom drama that nearly monopolized media headlines in his Netherlands homeland for more than 200 days. They changed the setting to the Pittsburgh area, and Haythe penned a methodically understated screenplay that escorts two related but parallel narratives through two very distinct time frames. The poker-faced structure is inventive and seductive as it gradually exposes its hand, but the overall film is never very compelling and wastes fine performances by its three internationally acclaimed stars.
The story begins at breakfast. In an affluent Pittsburgh suburb, self-made millionaire Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) gets dressed in a suit and tie and shares a poolside meal with his wife, Eileen (Helen Mirren, recently seen in Calendar Girls). Their conversation smacks of a marriage that has slipped from passion into complacent proficiency, and they chat about their married kids between distracted gazes and sweetly nodded acknowledgments.
In the inner city, hard-luck case Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe) shovels down a bowl of cereal in an apartment, we later are told, that he shares with his wife and father-in-law. He works his way across town via car and then city bus, attaching a fake mustache to his upper lip en route. He lurks in the foliage across from the Hayes estate and then boldly kidnaps Wayne at gunpoint at the foot of his long driveway.
The film then unfolds in alternating passages from Wayne and Eileen’s point of view. After a dinner with friends, Eileen finally reports her AWOL husband as a missing person, and the FBI and her concerned adult kids take up quarters in her home. Meanwhile, Arnold describes himself as a mere errand boy of sorts in a much larger conspiracy and marches Wayne through a lush forest. As conversations ensue between all parties here, questions and introspections poke into a dark corner of the Hayes marriage, and the relationship between Arnold and Wayne evolves into a microcosmic confrontation between this country’s haves and have-nots.
The acting is generally excellent. I must confess that I have been intoxicated by Mirren since her splash opposite Malcolm McDowell in 1973’s O Lucky Man! and have found her to be more talented and sensual over time. Here, she is the personification of survival as her physical features begin to deceive in quick slashes her emotional coolness and collection. Dafoe, who earned an Oscar nomination for nonchalantly snacking on the film crew in Shadow of the Vampire, is a walking contradiction. He plays a polite but internally seething unemployed corporate grunt who is head of a “household of disappointed people” and who relies on his imagination as a relief valve and then as a map that will free him from despair.
The problem with Redford’s role is not in his acting. He is dynamic as the rental-car-business entrepreneur “Hertz and Avis are afraid of” and reeks of a better-than-thou attitude even when negotiating for his own life. But there’s more ham in the script than on the sandwich that Wayne and Arnold share during a brief picnic lunch in the woods. And Wayne gets more than his fair share. He inexplicably misses two obvious opportunities to extricate himself from his predicament, and the film’s ending leaves further egg on his face. Also, Wayne’s reference to getting back to the way you were is a scream for alert trivia buffs.
Matt Craven also is solid, as the polite, manipulative FBI agent who explains that lack of control is the hardest part of a kidnapping and that he is there to get back that control. But Alessandro Nivola and Melissa Sagemiller and their roles as Wayne and Eileen’s adult children are barely memorable.
The Clearing refers to both a physical destination and the disposition of the Hayes marriage. In its desire to become more than just another “you don’t miss your water until your well runs dry” exercise, it unfortunately never fully reaches into either.