Clearing, The (2004) ** 1/2
Directed by Pieter Jan Brugge. Written by Justin Haythe, from a story by Brugge & Haythe. Photography, Denis Lenoir. Editing, Kevin Tent. Production design, Chris Gorak. Music, Craig Armstrong. Producers, Brugge, Palmer West & Jonah Smith. A Fox Searchlight release. 91 minutes. Rated R. Cast: Robert Redford (Wayne Hayes), Helen Mirren (Eileen Hayes), Willem Dafoe (Arnold Mack), Alessandro Nivola (Tim Hayes), Matt Craven (Agent Fuller), Melissa Sagemiller (Jill Hayes) and Wendy Crewson (Louise Miller).
It is a thriller of sorts, and an action film of sorts. But, emphatically, it is not a summer movie. The time of its release is wrong.
That said, this mysteriously-titled production (that is, for people who have not seen the film) is a drama without the standard trappings of action movies-- except for the suspense. It is, also emphatically, not a youth movie.
Its principals are senior citizen Wayne Hayes (Redford, age 67,) his wife Eileen Hayes (Mirren, age 59), and middle-aged Arnold (Dafoe, age 49).
Wayne has made a fortune in car rentals. He drives a Toyota Lexus. (Yes, Toyota makes it). His wife has a Mercedes. They probably have at least another car. Now, if Wayne had a Lamborghini, a Ferrari, a Porsche, an Aston Martin, etc. he would have been a different man and the movie would have been different too.
The Hayes couple lives in a beautiful mansion within some beautiful woods next to Pittsburgh. Their children are grown up. Wayne and Eileen seem happy and satisfied with their lives. But in the course of this tale we find out that Wayne has had a mistress, and still sees her. So, what else is new?
Now to the thrills. Pistol-packing Arnold Mack (Dafoe) --who apparently has no car-- kidnaps Wayne. Arnold tells him that he is a former Wayne employee. Wayne, being a gentleman of good manners, pretends he remembers that. Arnold, an unusually polite abductor, explain that he has been hired (by persons unidentified); that he has to take Wayne through mountains (sic) and on foot (how odd!) to a peak next to a clearing (aha!) where the abductionís ransom, conditions and such will be determined, and where he, Arnold, will get his payment for services given.
So the two men trek through thickly wooded hills (but no dales) and, in the process, reveal certain things to one another, including the reasons why Arnold is a sad sack, is unhappy, lives with his family in tight quarters made especially awful by his old father-in-law who is deaf but, around the clock turns up the TV to max. (Is this a variant to the Chinese water torture?)
Oddly, all this is done in an interesting way. Ambiguities reign. The captor-captive relations are somewhat interesting. The acting is discreet, economical and believable. But all that isnít enough. So, while the two men are given a sort of real-time treatment, asynchronously, we keep cutting to the victimís spouse at various times.
The exceptionally talented Helen Mirren is no bimbo-beauty but looks good in the mansionís swimming pool. She steals the show whenever sheís present, which is often. Her complex pain and sorrows are palpable. The fate of her husband tortures her, but, with admirable self control, she avoids theatrics and exhibitions of a despair which is palpably there. She keeps a very special cool in her house where two FBI agents have been planted. The senior operative (Matt Craven) is most likeable in his quiet sympathizing as well as his efficiency.
The coupleís children are present, including a young grand-child, whose birthday Eileen insists in celebrating. Thatís probably the most heart-wrenching sequence of the movie. (I wonder if Mirrenís nom-de-film is a devious homage to that great actress Helen Hayes.)
The movie makes no concessions to the usual constructions of thrillers. Among others, it replaces much of the genreís moments of suspense with charactersí behavior, and works in the parts about the mistress without fanfare. However, the large chunks of dialogue often lack muscle as well as self-revelations so that, albeit its 91 minutes, a short size by todayís standards, the movie cannot always avoid some dragging or time-confusions. Even so, it is a welcome first feature by the respectable producer of movies such as Glory, The Vanishing, Fatal Instinct, the Pelican Brief, Bulworth, et al.