The Clearing

August, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Pieter Jan Brugge

Starring:Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, and Willem Dafoe

What's to be made of this odd little effort by producer, (Insider, Bullworth, Glory) turned first-time director Pieter Jan Brugge? Featuring a fine cast headed by Robert Redford, Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe, and working from an often painfully uneven script by freshman screenwriter Justin Haythe, Brugge delivers a cocktail that's one part gimmick and three parts character study, with a dash of social commentary thrown in to put an edge on his concoction. Unfortunately, it just doesn't add up to a winning drink.

Redford plays industrialist Wayne Hayes, a successful entrepreneur who's sold the company he founded three years before the film begins and currently acts as a consultant to it. He and his wife Eileen, (Mirren) share a sumptuous home built some six years earlier, after their two children, (a married son and an unmarried daughter) have left the nest. They're grandparents, socially prominent and comfortable with each other in the ways that long-married couples often are; not unwilling to point out each other's shortcomings and foibles, but nevertheless relaxed in one another's company. A contented if somewhat stifling life--until one bright fall morning when Hayes leaves for the office and gets kidnapped at the very end of his own driveway by a disgruntled former employee.

Like Robert Duval, Willem Dafoe disappears into his characters; you know he's only playing a part, but his actions on screen contain a level of verisimilitude which makes you believe you're encountering him for the first time. As Arnold Mack, Hayes' quietly menacing kidnapper, Dafoe embodies a corporate everyman in the lineage of Willy Loman; defiant one moment and fawning the next, contemptuous of Hayes' success yet deeply envious of it and seething with resentment about the constrained mess his life's become since being laid off shortly after joining the company Hayes was in the undeclared process of unloading.

Clearing's action cuts between the unfolding kidnapping and the family's reaction to it, dropping clever hints of time-line discontinuity as it examines Eileen's stoicism and the rage and despair of their children. As Eileen responds to the successive instructions delivered to her by newspaper ad and telephone, the audience is treated to extended discussions between Hayes and Mack as they work their way to a hideout where Hayes is to be kept until his ransom is paid.

Justin Haythe's script provides his leads with the opportunity to flesh out the contours of their characters; he has an ear for the language which details the seemingly immaterial elements of married life and the rare ability to create conversations between two people in American business who live on vastly different levels of the corporate hierarchical ladder. Unfortunately, what Haythe delivers in style isn't matched in content; Mack's motivations remain frustratingly beyond his grasp to articulate, while Hayes swings from arrogant CEO to philosopher-under-stress to sympathetic hero as he confronts his assailant. It's not that Redford doesn't possess the skills to make his corporate magnate credible; with his craggy good looks unflatteringly exhibiting every one of his 67 years, the actor draws as much from his frequently confusing lines as they permit. Only Eileen's persona unfolds with clarity, her initial coldness gradually exposed as stoic strength. This finely etched reserve masks considerable strength of character, with which she holds her anguished family together, ultimately presenting a woman of great inner resources and deep devotion to a husband whose virtues have been far less constant than her own. Mirren's face can convey an entire range of emotions and the quiet manner in which she conveys the resolve displayed in Eileen's handling of Mack's demands provide the film's most satisfying--and fully realized-- element.

Clearing ends with a plot twist that ties up the discordant aspects the sequence of events contained in its story, but poor transitions between scenes and lackluster cinematography suggest that editor Kevin Trent and cinematographer Denis Lenoir were either given inadequate oversight or that the director didn't have sufficient clarity of vision to begin with. In the end, this intermittently interesting, 91-minute character study masquerading as a thriller fails because the tension between victim and perpetrator can't stand comparison with Mirren's stirring portrait of a wife and mother performing heroically under dreadful circumstances. 

The verdict? An ambitious and well-intentioned drama featuring highly competent actors working with material that can't decide whether to deliver an exciting confrontation or ruminate about the unspoken and unresolved personal issues facing its characters.  


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