The Clearing is immaculately acted, and how could it not be with the cast it has? Robert Redford, Willem Dafoe, and Helen Mirren; these are actors who know what they are doing. The direction by Pieter Jan Brugge is taut and skilled, so where does the film go wrong? For starters, it’s pretty bland, even thought the trailer would lead you to believe otherwise. This is not an action film by any means.
Robert Redford portrays Wayne Hayes, a successful businessman who is living a very comfortable life with his wife, Eileen (Mirren). While picking up the paper off his driveway one morning, Wayne is approached by Arnold Mack (Dafoe). Arnold is a former employee of Wayne’s, but Wayne doesn’t remember the crystal clear details. Before he knows it, Wayne has a gun pulled on him by Arnold. He’s been kidnapped.
Arnold leads the two of them to a remote forest where they are supposed to meet up with some other men. Clearly after a ransom, it is now up to Wayne to use his negotiating skills to try and get out of the situation.
Meanwhile, Eileen is back at their home, which now blanketed by the Feds. While she seeks advice from them, she is simultaneously learning things about her husband that any wife would rather just not know about. From corrupt business practices to infidelity, the truth leaks out a little bit at a time.
The Clearing set out to create a dramatic class conflict. We have Wayne, the well-to-do, but still in reality, businessman. Arnold is jealous of his lifestyle and angered by what he has done to get there. In his mind he has nothing to lose, even with a family and people to take care of.
Justin Haythe’s script (based upon the story by Brugge) contains multiple layers of drama, as things unfold at a pretty brisk pace once Wayne is kidnapped. He develops his characters well, especially that of Eileen. These are all completely believable people, and so many scripts do not convey that well.
The acting is top notch across the board, with Mirren turning in one of her best performances. The film is on her shoulders in many scenes, and she is simply outstanding as her portrayal of a wife who just keeps discovering her husband’s dirty secrets. Redford is excellent as always as the very smart Wayne, and Willem Dafoe makes for a rather slimy villain.
But the fact of the matter is that the film still manages to be fairly idol. Nothing really big happens until the relatively surprising ending. Perhaps we have seen too many kidnapping dramas, or perhaps the film just isn’t as clever as it thinks it is. Putting a finger on the exact ingredient that is missing is difficult, but the feeling that you get when exiting the theater is “great acting and dialogue, but I was bored.”
The Clearing may go down as a missed opportunity for some realistic drama with great twists, but the acting, direction, and overall good script almost add up to a recommendation. Now if I could just find that one ingredient.
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Length: 95 Minutes
Rating: R for brief strong language.
Theatrical Release: July 2, 2004 (Limited)
Directed by: Pieter Jan Brugge
Written by: Justin Haythe. Based upon the story by Pieter Jan Brugge.
Cast: Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, Willem Dafoe, Alessandro Nivola, Matt Craven, Melissa Sagemiller