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A review of The Clearing

click to enlarge Willem Dafoe and Robert Redford, kidnapper - and kidnappee.
  • Willem Dafoe and Robert Redford, kidnapper and kidnappee.

The Clearing (R)
Fox Searchlight Pictures

This summer's first drama for grown-ups concerns the abduction of Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford), a self-made rental car baron who lives in a stone mansion outside Pittsburgh. The black Lexus, the golden retriever, the stolid but melancholy wife (Helen Mirren), the neatly tucked away mistress -- yes, Wayne has acquired the whole bourgeois package until it's shattered and strangely affirmed on a misty summer morning.

The Clearing is the sort of languid thriller that's tempting to praise simply because it manages complex dramatic tensions and does not turn its villain into a spectacle of drooling pathology. It's a simple story: Wayne is kidnapped one morning by a former colleague, Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe), who he barely remembers. Held at gunpoint, he's bound, gagged and marched into the rugged backwoods of western Pennsylvania.

Dafoe's "Arn" is a gracious kidnapper: He purchases sneakers for his hostage and then inquires if they're comfortable. He packs a bag lunch and is willing to cut Wayne loose to eat. On their hike, there's plenty of time for man-to-man soul bearing. It turns out Mack's life is the reverse mirror of Wayne's ascent to CEO stardom. Downsized, forced to live in the tinderbox home of his wife's father, Mack spent his life reading about Wayne in Fortune magazine, brimming with regret and humiliation.

The Clearing owes its dramatic tension partly to the basic question of where in the wide woods Hayes is being led, but also to a simple game played with narrative time. Cutting between the men in the woods and a frightened Mirren at home days later, it becomes apparent that the fate of her husband has been settled, for better or worse.

Joined by her son and daughter, and an FBI kidnapping expert who sets up shop in the den, Mirren is a portrait of contained terror. Her children cope in different ways: Jill reverts to fetal poses and finger chewing, while her brother flies off the handle at the FBI agent (Matt Craven).

As this is a kidnapping, ransom notes arrive via courier. A microcassette of Wayne's voice tells his wife he's all right, but then a sample of his blood arrives proving perhaps the opposite. Dead or alive? In the process of investigating, the FBI agent discloses that the affair Mirren thought Wayne had put to rest was, in fact, still lingering. Mirren visits "the other woman" to learn that she is as much her husband's lover as his admirer. After learning how he helped her get settled after having to "let her go," Mirren snaps, "I'd have preferred if you stayed in cheap hotels."

Directed by Pieter Jan Brugge, The Clearing would be a disaster without three fine performances. Redford is an actor of limited range, but Wayne is the sort of character that suits him best: contained, focused, the benign patrician forced to confront his mortality. Dafoe's portrait of a reluctant assailant is cool, but curious. He speaks of learning to do things simply by "imagining it" and one wonders how much of his life is the manifestation of this practice. Sure, he's savage enough to pull off a kidnapping, but not nearly cool enough to keep the sweat from his face, or best his assailant in a series of moral arguments. Mirren, the emotional center, holds the film together with a remarkable capacity to have a visage capable of expressing dozens of emotions in a seemingly effortless stare.

As The Clearing closes, one sniffs furiously for a plot twist that never materializes. Of course, there is a resolution, which combines horror with a weepy reckoning fit for the Lifetime channel. The Clearing is a roller coaster for the faint of stomach, merely tense as opposed to hold-on-to-the-handlebars thrilling. The ending might satisfy your schmaltz requirements but not your curiosity about the mix of good and bad that makes people interesting.

--John Dicker

Kimball's Twin Peak

  • A review of The Clearing

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