The Clearing

The Clearing
"The Clearing" centers on the kidnapping of a successful businessman by a down-on-his-luck malcontent, but the goal of debuting director Pieter Jan Brugge -- who developed the screenplay with novelist Justin Haythe -- is to portray a troubled marriage. By inducing the extreme stress of such a violent separation on a husband and wife, played by Robert Redford and Helen Mirren, the movie wants to worm into the fissions and weak spots of their lives together. It's a risky strategy, for audiences may grow inpatient with such introspection during a time of emergency. But the real problem is that Brugge and Haythe fail to satisfactorily pull off either the thriller or the marital deconstruction.

The disappointment of this film is even more keenly felt when we realize that Redford, creator of the Sundance Institute and its famous festival that showcases independent works, is appearing for the first time in the kind of film of which he is such a staunch advocate. (It played in unfinished form at this year's Sundance Film Festival.) Redford's name virtually assures the film's drawing power in specialty theaters, but it is unlikely to venture much beyond upscale suburban cinemas.

As we watch Wayne and Eileen Hayes (Redford and Mirren) get ready for a seemingly uneventful day, we realize that the couple apparently has it all: a tasteful estate outside Pittsburgh, married children, grandkids and an easy camaraderie that comes from 30 years of marriage.

Another man gets ready for his day, too, but he is filmed in close-ups, so we know little about his circumstances. When the man, Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe), brazenly kidnaps Wayne at the front gate to his estate, the film divides into parallel story lines.

Arnold, who claims to be a cog in the wheel of a kidnapping conspiracy, transports Wayne at gunpoint to a forest. As the two trudge high into the mountains, their verbal exchanges lay out the striking disparity between a tycoon and a bitter failure, whose unemployment provokes severe self-doubts. Meanwhile, once Eileen realizes that Wayne's disappearance is a crime rather than a desertion -- a momentary mistake that speaks volumes about the seemingly perfect and placid Hayes marriage -- the FBI moves in, her family gathers, and nervous speculation begins.

Federal prying and Eileen's own self-interrogation yield a picture of a marriage beset by infidelity, suspicion and unspoken fears. Yet none of this is particularly compelling: a poor man jealous of a rich man; a wife worried about her husband's affair. Can we dig no deeper than this? The characters and their woes are too generic and the dramatic interplay between story lines too tepid to produce much heat.

The time frame also remains vague until much too late. Eileen's story spans a number of days, while Wayne's lasts a few hours. However, this is unclear until the latter half of the movie. Wayne's story also contains one of those movie moments, designed to inject much-needed melodrama, that rings false. At one point, he gets the upper hand in his struggle to survive against the determined kidnapper. But he squanders that opportunity in a most unbelievable way for a man whose life is at stake.

One wishes that Brugge had used Redford's iconic status to build the character of a self-made man shaken to discover that he may lose everything in a matter of hours. Nevertheless, Redford quietly conveys the essential point that the trauma refocuses his character's thoughts on his family rather than on his own safety. Mirren can do little more than fret and worry but does achieve a poignancy. Dafoe creates another memorable villain, one whose rage is buried beneath extreme politeness.

The careful craftsmanship and meticulous cinematography by Denis Lenoir and designer Chris Gorak give the movie muted colors and a well-upholstered decor that contain a touch of melancholy -- not unlike that in Redford's directing debut in "Ordinary People". Craig Armstrong's music has a suggestion of "American Beauty", where a few select chords are meant to reverberate tellingly through these peoples' lives.


Fox Searchlight Pictures

Fox Searchlight and Thousand Words present in association with Mediastream III a Thousand Words/Wildwood Enterprises production


Director: Pieter Jan Brugge

Screenwriter: Justin Haythe

Story by: Pieter Jan Brugge, Justin Haythe

Producers: Pieter Jan Brugge, Palmer West, Jonah Smith

Executive producer: Karen Tenkhoff

Director of photography: Denis Lenoir

Production designer: Chris Gorak

Music: Craig Armstrong

Co-producer: Dara Weintraub

Costume designer: Florence-Isabelle Megginson

Editor: Kevin Tent


Wayne Hayes: Robert Redford

Eileen Hayes: Helen Mirren

Arnold Mack: Willem Dafoe

Tim: Alessandro Nivola

Agent Fuller: Matt Craven

Jill: Melissa Sagemiller

Louise Miller: Wendy Crewson

MPAA rating R

Running time -- 95 minutes

See also

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