2 stars (out of 4)
Robert Redford was never better than as senatorial hopeful Bill McKay in the 1972 political comedy "The Candidate." Send hate mail, compose a thesis on the merits of "The Sting" and "The Natural"--I won't budge. Redford's mellow charm, his easy wit, his agitation, his body language all come together in the back of a limousine as McKay, after months of stumping, recites his campaign speech as the political gobbledygook it really is.
That was then, and this--"The Clearing"--regrettably is now.
Although Redford can never be downright awful, he has settled into a rut, marked by films like "Indecent Proposal" and "Up Close and Personal," in which everyone involved seems to rely on his name and his face and not insist on his abundance of talent.
"The Clearing" is just an OK thriller, full of standard scenarios and cookie-cutter characters. Redford plays Wayne Hayes, a wealthy bulldog of a Pittsburgh businessman who, as the founder of his own car rental business, is known as "the man Hertz and Avis are afraid of." He and his wife, Eileen (Helen Mirren), lead an idyllic life, live on an idyllic estate, eat idyllic breakfasts by the idyllic pool until
(Yes, it's one of those movies.)
Until Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe), wearing one of those short-sleeved buttoned-down shirts that just screams disgruntled ex-employee, kidnaps his old boss Wayne.
Under the direction of Pieter Jan Brugge, the film does unfold in a distinctive way, with events on Eileen's end spanning a few weeks and on Wayne and Arnold's end just a day. But it's not distinct enough.
Soon after learning her husband has been snatched, Eileen is joined by her children and FBI agent Ray Fuller, who asks if Wayne has any enemies, if anyone would want to harm him, and soon enough, if Eileen knows much about all those phone calls from Wayne to Louise Miller.
Turns out the Hayes' idyllic life wasn't--a shock to no one--and that Wayne had been carrying on with a former female employee, a woman Eileen had axed and believed was out of the picture long ago.
We learn all this as Arnold and Wayne traipse around a forest, where captor has taken captured to meet some mysterious guys in a shack at the edge of the woods. You see, Arnold is just the transport guy. He means no harm, carries a gun only to keep order, and will return to his wife and kids once he delivers Wayne to the nice shack men. Whether things unfold as Arnold promises is the part I can't tell you.
As they walk uphill and downstream, Arnold and Wayne chat about life, work and their wives--women!--and develop one of those circumstantial relationships wherein every sentence spoken is a sort of plea or manipulation. It might be an interesting psychological character study if not for the sheer transparency of the conversations and the familiar adrenaline rushes.
Back at the home front, Eileen still hasn't shed a tear or asked any pertinent questions, preferring to dole out one-word answers for Agent Fuller and say things like, "Are we done here?" Eileen swallows the revelation of her husband's infidelity, exhibiting only snippets of emotion. As often is the case, repressed is played as robotic--until, of course, the weight of the world becomes too much for Eileen to bear. Mirren fills Eileen's breakdown with raw, angry emotion, but because of her earlier stiffness, it feels more like a carefully timed and precisely aimed explosion than the honest reaction of a wife in severe distress.
If I'm being especially harsh on a movie that is, as I said above, not horrible, it's because of its headliners. I expect my Redfords and Mirrens and Dafoes to get together and star in a really great film, not just a passable one. "The Clearing" is a tasteful, low-key thriller--there are only a few cheap stunts and little unnecessary melodrama--but it's as bland and rote as the day Arnold and Wayne spend in the woods is long. And the brilliance of Redford's 1972 performance really does seem from another century.
Directed by Pieter Jan Brugge; written by Justin Haythe; photographed by Denis Lenoir; edited by Kevin Tent; production designed by Chris Gorak; produced by Palmer West, Jonah Smith and Brugge. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:31. MPAA rating R (brief strong language).
Wayne Hayes - Robert RedfordEileen Hayes - Helen MirrenArnold Mack - Willem DafoeAgent Ray Fuller - Matt CravenCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times