The Clearing

Take three extremely talented actors and give them a so-so script and the result is The Clearing, a suspenseful film that starts on a very good note and then slowly drifts downward. It's disappointing, given the powerhouse acting ability of its three stars, Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, and Willem Dafoe. The plot of the film centers on a kidnapping, and unfolds in two parallel stories; the kidnapper and his victim, and the victim's family. The is the first film for both writer/director Pieter Jan Brugge and co-writer Justin Haythe, and its easy to feel the 'greenness' of their approach at times. The most impressive accomplishment is how they managed to seep most of the emotion out of all of the characters. Redford, Mirren, and Dafoe are all hollow shells, and part of The Clearing is realizing how empty their lives are.

Redford (The Last Castle, Spy Game) is Walter Hayes, a rich executive who built a rental car company from scratch. He lives comfortably with is wife Eileen (Mirren, Calendar Girls, Gosford Park) in a huge mansion on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. Their marriage is now one of familiarity. They know each other very well, but it's hard to know if they still love each other. There is a certain emptiness that Eileen feels from Walter, and it really disturbs her. But instead of expressing her emotions, she withholds them, letting them stew slowly inside her. On his way work, Arnold Mack (Dafoe, Once Upon a Time in New Mexico, The Reckoning) abducts Walter, and begins taking him through the woods to meet the people behind the kidnapping.

At this point, Brugge and Haythe cut between Mack and Walter, and Eileen and the FBI. The two threads are not moving at the same pace, which does become apparent, and a bit frustrating and anti-climactic. The Mack/Walter sequences take place relatively quickly, as the two talk about things like life and their marriages. Walter does everything he can to try to convince Mack to let him go, and at times he seems like he may be successful. But Mack is hiding something, and he is much too bitter about his job loss to fall for any mental tricks. The real drama comes from Eileen and the FBI, and their story takes place over days and weeks. As they try to work with a ransom, Eileen needs to come to terms with her missing husband, and reevaluate the state of her marriage. Her first reaction when Walter failed to show was that he left her. There was an affair in the past, which may be the reason that their marriage seems so cordial, but not loving. Her kids return, but they are pretty much relegated to looking sad.

Mirren is a fantastic actress, and internalizes all of Eileen's struggles. She is not willing to face certain realities, and not willing to let go of her comfortable life, even if it is dull. Now, faced with the prospect of living on her own, she needs to pull herself together and learn to make decisions with serious consequences. It's kind of a shame that the caliber of the script fails to meet the caliber of Mirren's performance. She just moves so hollowly through the film, and in a way it's sad to think about how empty her life is. Brugge contrasts the pristine, bucolic woods with the sterile look of the Hayes house (estate), and Walter also begins to realize certain things about his life. However, the story, after a measured pacing that emphasizes drama over schlock, drops the ball at the end.

Mongoose Rates It: Okay.
1 hour, 31 minutes, Rated R for brief strong language.

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