The histrionics normally associated with kidnap dramas are not to be found in “The Clearing.” No one screams “Give me back my son!” into a phone, nor are there risky ransom-exchange scenarios, nor are there trite explanations for the evil-doers’ grudges.
Instead, we have a mature, character-based film in which kidnapping is the story, but the people are the substance. Robert Redford, Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe give some of the most thorough performances of their distinguished careers, and first-time director Pieter Jan Brugge (who has worked for many years as a producer) makes a riveting debut as a filmmaker.
It is Redford’s character, a successful Pittsburgh businessman named Wayne Hayes, who is kidnapped. The doer is Arnold Mack (Dafoe), who says he worked in the same office as Hayes years ago, when Hayes was on his way up the ladder. Mack, whom we see early with a wife and what looks like an average home life, says he’s only the hired gun in the operation, following the instructions of an unnamed group that wants Hayes for unnamed reasons.
Hayes’ wife, Eileen (Mirren), an aging housewife who has not let her financial well-being turn her into a pampered layabout, must endure more torment than her abducted husband. Two FBI agents (Matt Craven and Gwen McGee) move into her home for the duration, and their investigation into Wayne’s personal and business affairs reveals information Eileen was content not knowing. One is tempted to wonder whether the Hayeses’ marriage will last even after Wayne is released.
Redford turns 67 this year, and this is the first time he’s ever looked it. His face, often seen in close-up, is craggy and expressive, weathered but still full of life and charisma. It’s the face of a man who has everything he wants in the world and has worked hard to get it, which I suppose is true of both the actor and the character.
Meanwhile, Mirren exudes dignity as the strong, wounded Eileen, a character whose aloofness hides her vulnerability. Her emotional moments — subdued, controlled and agonizing — are pitch-perfect; Mirren embraces the role so fearlessly and completely that she ought to be studied by acting students.
Justin Haythe’s screenplay pulls a neat trick with the story’s timeline that I won’t fully reveal here. We flashback a number of times to prior points in Wayne and Eileen’s marriage, but there’s something else going on, too, something rather ingenious. Note that the story is clearly divided into two distinct and separate settings: Eileen and the FBI agents and her two grown children (Melissa Sagemiller and Alessandro Nivola) deal with ransom notes back home, while Wayne and Mack walk toward a distant rendezvous point in the woods. Where the movie leads us is interesting, but not nearly as compelling as the journey there.
A- (1 hr., 31 min.; )
In 2012, I reconsidered this movie for my Re-Views column at Film.com.