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, Bulworth) 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 tragic irresolution.
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.