Wayne and Eileen Hayes (Robert Redford and Helen Mirren) live in a luxurious rustic mansion deep in the secluded suburbs. On his way to work one morning, Wayne encounters a man named Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe) who kidnaps him at gunpoint after showing him an envelope containing photographs of his wife. When Wayne doesn’t return home that evening, Eileen calls the authorities to report her missing husband.
The kidnapper, as we learn before the kidnapping, fits the profile of a desperate nobody whom seeks the spoils of the rich to rid his own problems and pathetic past. He lives with his unhappy wife and her father in an urban city unseen by the people of Hayes’ kind; shielded behind an aura of rich, thick greenery and upper-class privilege.
Arnold is an odd fellow. On the morning of the kidnapping we see him paste on a fake mustache after shaving his real facial hair, probably to conceal his shameful identity. He’s obviously unhappy with something. Perhaps he doesn’t know what he seeks. Perhaps he’s just desperate and has run out of ideas. He’s a lost man looking for guidance, having clearly become the inadequate husband he never expected to be.
Throughout the film we intercut between two story lines: The more pressing plot is of course the kidnapping as Arnold leads a tied-up Wayne through a wooden forest for purposes yet to be explained. And the second plot takes place back at the home where Eileen anxiously waits for information along with FBI agent Fuller (Matt Craven). Eileen’s children, Tim and Jill (Alessandro Nivola and Melissa Sagemiller) now well into adulthood, have arrived to offer their support.
Before it becomes apparent that Wayne has been kidnapped, Eileen considered the possibility that Wayne might have left her to be the woman with whom he had an affair. Fuller knows of the affair, too, but knows a little more. Recovered phone records reveal that Wayne maintained communication with the woman long after Eileen told him to end the relationship. Lost for words and having decided to keep the affair a secret from her children, Eileen meets with Louise Miller (Wendy Crewson), the mistress who regularly met with Wayne. It’s an awkward moment for the both of them. Louise shows Eileen a photo-book of New York she received from Wayne as a gift because she’s never been. Say what you want about his back-stabbing, Wayne was a nice guy.
Back and forth we go from Eileen’s story to Wayne’s, and each time we catch up the story gets more interesting. Wayne is much smarter than his captor and is able to use his intellectual wit to get inside Arnold’s mind and reveal the purpose of the kidnapping. Arnold is obviously jealous and cites Wayne’s overnight success as the owner of a car rental agency which resulted somehow in the unemployment of Arnold. “You’re the man feared by Hertz and Avis," he tells Wayne without a hint of humor.
As Wayne is handcuffed and led by Arnold through the woods to a cabin where his accomplices patiently wait, they struggle for mental authority. Arnold is not totally apathetic. He tells Wayne he does not plan to harm him as long as he doesn’t cause trouble. Wayne wonders if the accomplices will be as hospitable; Arnold can only give him his word. Along the journey they take breaks to rest and eat a sandwich of either ham or tuna; Wayne’s choice. Arnold even recommends that he dip his feet in the river for comfort. Arnold doesn’t want trouble. He just wants the money and redemption. Wayne sees this as a weakness and figures a way out. He will try something risky and desperate. Arnold may not be much of a threat but he doesn’t want to meet the men waiting for him in the cabin.
"The Clearing" is director Pieter Jan Brugge’s first film at directing. His producing credits include "The Pelican Brief" and "Heat," so he’s no stranger to thrilling plots. He co-wrote the screenplay with British novelist Justin Haythe, and together they have made a thrillingly suspenseful film, even if the buildup takes some time. It’s worth the wait.
The climax is a chair-grabber and because the entire setup of the film avoids the usual formulas we don’t know what to expect. I was caught off guard but appreciated the film’s brutal honesty. So many crime movies drag audiences by a string and substitute a bait-and-switch twist for logic. “The Clearing” wisely takes the latter route.
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