"The Clearing" is an intelligent thriller that adroitly explores a longtime marriage through the remorseless workings of the suspense genre, in which Pieter Jan Brugge's acutely observant direction and Justin Haythe's thoughtful script allow Robert Redford, Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe to give performances that rank among their best. A superior, thoroughly adult film, "The Clearing" was inspired by an incident that occurred in Brugge's native Holland.
Redford's Wayne Hayes and Mirren's Eileen Hayes clearly have an enduring respect and affection, if not passion, for each other, yet between them there's also a certain distance. They live in a large, tasteful stone house in a leafy Pittsburgh suburb and have two grown children (Alessandro Nivola, Melissa Sagemiller). Clearly well-off, they're an attractive couple in late middle age, and their natural appearance — Redford is decidedly craggy — adds to their appeal. The Hayeses' life has settled into an easy, if unexciting, routine, and when Wayne does not show up for a dinner to which Eileen has invited another couple she is irritated rather than concerned, suggesting that she is used to her husband getting caught up in his work. But as the evening ticks away and her guests say goodbye, it's not long before she reports him missing.
Wayne has been kidnapped, by Dafoe's Arnold Mack, a former employee at a company in which Wayne once was a principal. When it faltered after Wayne departed, Arnold became one of many who were laid off. He does not blame Wayne personally, but in the eight years since he was laid off he has had plenty of time to obsess over Wayne, delving into every aspect of his life. Wayne has come to loom increasingly large in his mind as the man who is everything he is not. Arnold has had a tough time finding work and has had to move his wife and daughters into his father-in-law's "house of disappointments," as Arnold puts it.
As Arnold forces a handcuffed Wayne to trudge through a forest, Eileen is being questioned exhaustively by FBI agent Ray Fuller (Matt Craven).
As Wayne talks of Eileen to Arnold, and Eileen talks of Wayne to the sympathetic agent, a sense of their mutual love surfaces, which is the heart of the film. Eileen realizes what a good man the hard-working Wayne really is; Wayne becomes aware that his life means nothing without Eileen — even if he has not always been faithful.
Because Wayne is self-made he has a hard time empathizing with Arnold's plight; the irony is that had Wayne had everything handed to him on a silver platter, Arnold might not have identified with him so strongly. In short, Wayne did for himself what Arnold was unable to do for himself.
Brugge, a noted producer making his directorial debut, plays character against suspense so effectively that his stars are able to create distinct, complex individuals from Haythe's carefully wrought screenplay.
Redford's Wayne is a man of courage and honesty, capable of owning up to past mistakes, and he very much wants to survive his ordeal. Mirren's Eileen is a woman who has placed a great deal of importance on self-control, and she is determined to maintain a cool strength in crisis yet remains open to discoveries about herself and her husband. She has a wonderful moment when Eileen becomes determined not to appear unduly unruffled at the news that her husband appears to have had contact with his mistress after they had broken up.
Dafoe is really the linchpin character here and recalls kidnapper Terence Stamp in William Wyler's "The Collector." Dafoe's Arnold similarly has obvious humanity but a warped mentality.
"The Clearing" is a beautiful and consistently engaging film, but that the filmmakers dared cast all three lead roles with actors who are over 40 makes it especially rewarding.
MPAA rating: R for brief strong language.
Times guidelines: Too intense for youngsters but suitable for mature older children
Robert Redford ...Wayne Hayes
Helen Mirren...Eileen Hayes
Willem Dafoe...Arnold Mack
Alessandro Nivola...Tim Hayes
Matt Craven...Agent Ray Fuller
A Fox Searchlight Pictures and Thousand Words presentation in association with Mediastream II of a Thousand Words/Wildwood Enterprises production. Producer-director Pieter Jan Brugge. Producers Palmer West, Jonah Smith. Executive producer Karen Tenkhoff. Screenplay by Justin Haythe; from a story by Brugge and Haythe. Cinematographer Denis Lenoir. Editor Kevin Tent. Music Craig Armstrong. Costumes Florence-IsabeIle Megginson. Production designer Chris Gorak. Art director Paul Huggins. Set decorator Marthe Pineau. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
In general release.