Clearing, The

Reviewed By Stephen Groenewegen
Posted 10/06/04 13:52:00

"Lost in the woods"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

The biggest mystery of the kidnapping thriller The Clearing is why Robert Redford, Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe chose to star in it.

Redford plays Wayne Hayes, a 60-something business manager and CEO who made his significant fortune in the car rental business. He lives with long-suffering wife Eileen (Helen Mirren) in an extravagantly large house in a posh suburb of Pittsburgh. Although heís retired, Wayne is heading out to the office early one morning when a stranger stops his car in the driveway. Before Wayne can react, Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe) has him covered with a gun and is ordering him to drive.

Eileen reports Wayne missing when he doesnít come home that night. Two FBI agents (Matt Craven, Gwen McGee) move into the house to co-ordinate the investigation and the grown Hayes kids (Alessandro Nivola and Melissa Sagemiller) return home to comfort their mother. Meanwhile, Mack turns out to be a disgruntled ex-employee who was made redundant at one of Wayneís companies. He brings Wayne to a remote woodland location and tells him that he is being paid to take him to a hunting lodge deep in the woods.

First-time director Pieter Jan Brugge developed The Clearingís story with novelist Justin Haythe, who wrote the screenplay. They play tricks with the storyís timeframe. Brugge cuts between Wayne and Eileenís stories as if they were occurring at the same time, when itís obvious that weíre witnessing Wayneís abduction on the day it unfolds and following the aftermath with Eileen over the course of weeks. Itís disorientating, but the purpose becomes clear by the end. Unfortunately, is also becomes apparent that itís a device to try and distract us from a thin plot and a silly resolution, especially where Mackís part in the story is concerned.

I donít mind a simple story if there are compensations in smart dialogue, strong themes or rich characterisations. Brugge has assembled three riveting performers, so why does it feel as if they are all taking a day off? Mirren is colourless as an aged trophy wife who takes forever to seize the initiative. Dafoe is too much the disappointed sad sack to display sufficient cunning to keep you on your toes. Eileen describes her husband as a man with a great talent for inspiring confidence in other people, but Wayneís attempts to charm Mack are so ineffectual that itís impossible to take him seriously.

The Clearing is light on plot but even lighter on ideas. Brugge is telling us that the American dream has a cost - you canít spend all your time chasing success and expect your family relationships to stay on hold. Thatís hardly a revelation, and itís all he has to say.

The pace is enervated and the movieís thrills are mostly feeble. There is one genuinely scary scene that takes place with Eileen at night, but it relies on Mirrenís skill in making you believe that her character would do something so stupid. Itís balanced by a pointless action sequence between Redford and Dafoe that does nothing to advance our understanding of the plot or characters, except show us that both men are just as prone to ineptitude as Eileen.

Brugge is best known as a producer - he made The Insider, Bulworth, The Pelican Brief and Glory, among others. That he could attract Redford, Mirren and Dafoe with such an unformulated script suggests that producing is where his talent really lies, and where he should concentrate his energies in future.

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