| art & architecture | books & cds | dance
| destinations | film | opera | television | theater | archives
The Clearing is an unusual combination of the
suspenseful and the thoughtful, a character-based drama that grabs hold and digs deeply
under the surface. The film is a first outing for director Pieter Jan Brugge, but his
prior credits as a producer (The Insider,
foreshadow the quality that he delivers here. Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) is a self-made man, a skilled
player of the corporate game who made his fortune in the car rental business. He and his
wife of some thirty years, Eileen (Helen Mirren) have breakfast together by the pool of
their elegant Pittsburgh mansion. Their breakfast conversation has the tone of
long-married folks who are well accustomed to one another's ways, but the subtlety of the
acting and the incisiveness of the direction also wordlessly establish a subtext, a vague
sense of something a little off between them.
When Wayne fails to arrive home for dinner that evening (he knew that
guests were expected), she becomes concerned and reports him missing. Before long his car
is discovered, abandoned in a parking garage. Jumping back in time, the film shows Arnold
Mack (Willem Dafoe) coolly and efficiently kidnapping Wayne.
From there, the film cuts back and forth between events at home,
largely seen from Eileen's point of view, and what happens between Wayne and Arnold. The
latter is a working class guy who lost his job after 17 years and hasn't been able to find
a new position. His sees his life as a dispirited failure, an essay in the unexceptional.
He and his wife now live with his aging father-in-law --"a household of disappointed
people," he calls it.
On the other hand, Arnold has planned this kidnap with patience,
meticulous attention to detail, and a high degree of cleverness. The give-and-take between
kidnapper and victim at once becomes a game of psychological chess--Wayne, with words,
trying to ferret out the weaknesses in both Arnold and his plan. Arnold reveals how much
detail he has accumulated about Wayne's life and talks about his own as well. As they
parry with words, there's an undercurrent of class conflict, of the resentment of the
have-not and the sense of entitlement of the successful, rubbing against one another in
On Eileen's end, her son and daughter have joined her; the family agony
is palpable. The FBI agent assigned to the case seems less than competent, suggesting
ineffective, formulaic responses to the unfolding events. Further, to no useful purpose,
he cavalierly betrays Eileen's confidence about the affair that her husband had with a
woman from his office.
Suspense grows and Brugge, with screenwriter Justin Haythe, does not
disappoint with a predictable resolution. Nor do they ever stray from the focus on the
three central characters, developed in depth, fully realized, and sympathetic. The
dialogue has the ring of natural speech, managed without cliches. All along the way,
naturally emerging from the plot developments, more information comes to light about these
people, especially about the relationship between Eileen and Wayne. At its heart, The
Clearing is a love story.
Mirren (The Roman
Spring of Mrs. Stone, Door
to Door, Gosford Park)
simply grows more masterly from performance to performance, here achieving an emotional
transparency that seems remarkable in view of the rather conservative, understated
character she plays. Redford (Spy Game,
The Last Castle) and Dafoe (The Reckoning, Shadow of the Vampire) both bring
their characters to life and are especially effective playing off of one another in the
cat-and-mouse game of perpetrator and victim.
It is to Brugge's credit that these three actors not only deliver
compelling characterizations, but they also genuinely appear to be listening when
others speak. That's not true of the FBI agent, which, one imagines, is an intended part
of the portrait--he's the only guy in the movie for whom you won't feel sympathy.
- Arthur Lazere