The Clearing is a dull and anticlimactic suspense drama that pales in comparison to savvier psychological thrillers with clever plots twists to which moviegoers have become accustomed.
At a glance, Wayne and Eileen Hayes (Robert Redford, Helen Mirren) lead a perfect life. They live on a gorgeous estate in a Pittsburgh suburb where Eileen, the quintessential Martha Stewart, maintains a seemingly perfect household. But when jilted ex-employee Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe) kidnaps Wayne for ransom, their idyllic life slowly begins to show signs of wear and tear. On the home front, an FBI agent questions Eileen about Wayne's ongoing infidelity, something she believed was in the past. Wayne, meanwhile, is being led at gunpoint to a clearing in a forest. While he understands Arnold's motives, i.e., money, Wayne doesn't quite remember how he knows his abductor and spends most of the trek trying to figure it out and devising a means of escape. The film goes back and forth between Eileen and Wayne's storylines, slowly feeding the audience pertinent information about their relationship. But Eileen's predicament--to keep her adult children from finding out the truth about their father's extramarital fling--pales in comparison to Wayne's life-and-death struggle. In the end, Wayne and Eileen come to the same realization: that they truly love one another despite their flaws. The sentiment, however, may have come too late.
Considering how focused The Clearing is on its three main stars, it's surprising how little character development there actually is. Redford, Mirren and Dafoe are wonderfully cast in this film, but rather than fleshing them out, the storyline only enforces the first stoic impressions of their characters. Take Redford's character Wayne, king of the car rental business who is aptly described in the film as ''the man Hertz and Avis are afraid of.'' Throughout the story, we discover he is a charismatic businessman who treats every employee with equal importance. We also learn that he hasn't always been the best father or husband. But there's nothing really meaty in any of it and certainly nothing to make us like much about him. Audiences will perhaps be more in awe of Redford the screen legend than Redford as Wayne. Equally unlikable is Mirren's character Eileen. Not only does the Hayes home look like it should be featured in the pages of Martha Stewart Living, but the filmmakers seem to have gone out of their way to make Mirren look and act like the embattled housekeeping maven, obsessed with projecting a perfect appearance. Upon discovering her husband never ended an affair with a woman from his company, her biggest concern she is that her two children, now married and living their own lives, don't find out. Whether it is to maintain their father's perfect image or because she doesn't want to be judged for standing by him throughout his marital infidelity is never really explored. Rounding out the cast is Dafoe as the seedy and lowbrow kidnapper, Arnold. Oddly, Arnold's character is the best explained in the film, but who wants to cheer for a psychotic antagonist?
Pieter Jan Brugge, who makes his feature directorial debut here, doesn't inject any oomph into a somewhat original concept. Brugge explains the story as an ''opportunity to say something about the American dream and the price people paid in its pursuit, as well as the price paid by those it has eluded.'' But while the director gives this stale money-doesn't-buy-happiness premise an intriguing kidnapping spin, it's one that, like most ransom demands, never quite pays off. For example, there is a scene in The Clearing in which Redford and Dafoe take a cigarette break during their daylong trek through the woods. Brugge seems to pay extra close attention to a book of matches that Dafoe hands to a handcuffed Redford, who then obscures it in the palm of his hand. Is he going to use the matches to Macgyver his way out of the cuffs, or somehow free himself of his captor? No--the matches never amount to anything. The biggest red herring of all, however, is the painstakingly slow buildup that leads to a predictable and unspectacular denouement. What's more, the lackluster story and its colorless characters are paired with equally drab settings, such as the Hayes' monochromatic stone mansion and the wet and dreary forest.
After an unbearably slow and deliberately long buildup, director Pieter Jan Brugge's kidnapping thriller The Clearing never delivers a payoff.