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Robert Redford as Wayne Hayes
Helen Mirren as Eileen Hayes
Willem Dafoe as Arnold Mack
Alessandro Nivola as Tim Hayes
Matt Craven as Agent Ray Fuller
Melissa Sagemiller as Jill Hayes
Wendy Crewson as Louise Miller
Larry Pine as Tom Finch
Diana Scarwid as Eva Finch
Elizabeth Ruscio as Cindy Mack
Gwen McGee as Agent Kathleen Duggan
Sarah Koskoff as Lane Hayes
Graciela Marin as Graciela
Mike Pniewski as Detective Kyle Woodward
Geoff McKnight as John Dewitt
Retired businessman Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) has been kidnapped by Arnold Mack, an unemployed computer programmer (Willem Dafoe), leaving Hayes' wife (Helen Mirren) and family worried they'll never see him again. As he is herded through the woods to an undisclosed location, Wayne tries to get into the head of his captor and find out what makes him tick.
Kidnapping thrillers tend to be a bit generic in that they can only really go one of three ways: the kidnapping victim is killed, he or she manages to escape, or someone finds and saves them. Plenty of these movies have explored the relationship between kidnapper and victim and how the kidnapping affects the victim's loved ones, but Pieter Jan Brugge's directorial debut, The Clearing, takes a deeper look at the emotions of those involved in such a horrible crime. It's possible that this movie couldn't have come at a more (or less?) opportune time, since the significance of kidnapping has been heightened by the situation in the Mid East where American civilians are being kidnapped and killed. The timeliness of this subject matter makes The Clearing that much more somber and powerful.
Dutch director Pieter Jan Brugge is better known as producer of respected films like The Insider, so it's no surprise that he was able to pull together an amazing cast of Hollywood veterans for his directorial debut, an original idea for which he hired author Justin Haythe to write the screenplay.
Robert Redford gives another great performance, but despite this being his movie, the breakthrough performance comes from Helen Mirren, who once again shows why she has received so many Oscar nominations. The way she copes with the day-to-day living without her husband and with the necessary intrusion of the FBI agents assigned to the case is deeply moving and powerful. There aren't many scenes between her and Redford, but you can learn a lot about their relationship from the little bit of screen time they have together. Her husband's absence says even more about this marriage, as the kidnapping ends up exposing the marital problems they had beforehand. The movie is as much about their marriage and how it is affected by his sudden absence, as it is about the kidnapping.
The Clearing owes more to Martin Scorsese's underrated King of Comedy than some of the other kidnapping movies—the Coen Brothers have about three--due to Willem Dafoe's quiet but deliberate portrayal of Arnold Mack that will remind many of Robert DeNiro's Rupert Pupkin in that classic film. Mack's motivations are a bit more vague, but Mack isn't nearly as insane or psychotic as most of Dafoe's bad guy roles, or at least, it's not nearly as obvious from his mild-mannered nature. There is a sad quality to his character and his situation that forces him to do what he does, but it's a great credit to Dafoe's talents that he makes the viewer feel sympathy and empathy for him. Mack is yet another memorable role in an impressive career.
The scenes between Dafoe and Redford are great, scripted so precisely that it allows them to show off why they're two of Hollywood's finest actors. The cat and mouse mind games played between their characters keep the rather obvious premise more interesting than it might be otherwise, and Dafoe looks surprisingly young compared to Redford, who looks so rundown and disheveled in this role.
Besides the great performances, The Clearing's most impressive feat is the way that it juggles its unique non-linear storytelling style. While dramas like 21 Grams have successfully told rather mundane stories while jumping backwards and forwards in time, Van Brugge takes a more natural approach with Wayne and his kidnapper being followed over the course of a single day, interspersed with scenes of his wife learning how to deal with the absence of her husband over the course of weeks. The two separate stories are cut together almost seamlessly.
While the first three quarters of the movie are tediously slow at times, mainly driven by dialogue-heavy scenes, the intensity slowly builds towards a number of climactic moments in the last twenty minutes that will keep the viewer on the edge of their seat. When Mirren finally has a chance to confront her husband's captor, it may very well be one of the eeriest moments ever captured on film. Craig Armstrong's soundtrack is effective in its transparency, but the most effective scenes are ones where Brugge uses the silence or the sounds of the woods to set the mood.
The Bottom Line:
Despite its slow nature, The Clearing is a refreshing and taut thriller that doesn't pander to Hollywood ideals, rarely going where one may expect. While the story itself may not be as original as dramas like 21 Grams or In the Bedroom, the script and the amazing performances by three fine actors makes this the type of character driven drama that will deeply resonate with older, married couples more than anyone else.
The Clearing opened in select cities on Friday, July 2, and it will expand into other cities over the course of July.