Pieter Jan Brugge and Justin Haythe, making their debut as director and screenwriter, respectively, use a kidnapping as pretense to explore love and marriage, thus inventing a new genre, the sentimental thriller. Since the perpetrator and his victim are inclined to discuss social and psychological conundrums such as economic justice and personal happiness, their movie could as easily be labeled an ontological mystery. Whatever its pedigree, The Clearing is talky and mawkish, the characters goaded into action for no reason, it seems, other than to fulfill prescribed plot requirements. Mostly, though, they review their lives, regretting here, justifying there, exorcising old grudges, soothing old wounds…in short, basking in the sweet sadness of melodrama.
This, admittedly, has its appeal. It's comforting to watch attractive people absolve the bitterness of infidelity, and Robert Redford and Helen Mirren are exceedingly attractive as Wayne and Eileen Hayes. Redford convincingly captures the successful entrepreneur at the end of his career, a bit tired of it all, chastened by personal and professional disappointments but boastful of his accomplishments. He delivers a performance best described, without irony, as Clintonian. Mirren, likewise, conveys the deference, affection and repression of the wife of a self-absorbed but charming man who needed more than she could provide.
The Hayes' comfortable, if listless, suburban redoubt is suddenly and inexplicably invaded by Arnold Mack, a victim of globalization played with quiet despair by Willem Dafoe. Long out of work, forced to move in with his father-in-law in a dreary downscale neighborhood, Mack has decided to reverse his financial woes and gain a modicum of revenge by ransoming Wayne.
Brugge and Haythe dispose of this exposition deftly, allowing them to spend most of the film exploring the consequences of the crime. In addition, they employ an unusual narrative tack, using two time frames to tell the story. In one, Mack takes Wayne on an arduous day-long hike through the woods (beautifully lensed by Denis Lenoir), ostensibly to a camp where he will hold him hostage until Eileen meets his demands. In the other, Eileen and her family (Alessandro Nivola and Melissa Sagemiller as her son and daughter) negotiate with the FBI (Matt Craven as Agent Fuller) for her husband's safe return, a process that unfolds over the course of days or, perhaps, weeks. Viewers are unaware of the shifting sequences at first, producing confusion, but the trick allows the filmmakers to bring their protagonists to parallel epiphanies.
During the investigation, Eileen learns that Wayne has been pursuing an extramarital liaison despite his promise to end it. Wayne, meanwhile, justifies his indiscretion to Arnold during their chats, which intensify as they trek deeper into the forest and, metaphorically, deeper into their pasts. Not surprisingly, they find each other, and themselves, guilty of lies they have embraced in order to fill an emptiness in their lives--emotional in one case, economic in the other.
The Clearing, as its title suggests, is an allegory, a meditation on adult themes that works hard to keep its audience engaged. Despite their best efforts, however, Brugge (nominated for an Oscar for producing The Insider) and Haythe (author of The Honeymoon: A Novel) can't sustain the film's suspense. The filmmakers set out to inquire into the complexities of the human heart, but seem worried their audience will be bored by such earnestness. So they start moving levers and turning gears, sacrificing the film's originality to the god-from-the-machine, grafting predictable fight and chase scenes that are perfunctory if not contrived. The film ends with its loose ends in a tidy knot, but its themes come unraveled.