The Clearing is what’s known in the biz as an alternative for adult moviegoers. Which is to say the film is a performance-driven drama devoid of special effects and loud noises. On the contrary, it’s a meditation on midlife weaknesses and compensations in which the camera idles for relatively infinite stretches on the handsomely etched faces of serious actors over the age of 45, who speak lines of literate dialogue about things of importance to people over the age of 45, including trust, regret, shame, and the courage to go on.
Then again, we’re talking about a foggy semi-thriller of inconsistent mood — a subdued directorial debut for ”The Insider” producer Pieter Jan Brugge from a script by first-timer Justin Haythe — in which the local kidnapping of a rich Pittsburgh businessman shatters the lives of his family. There’s a ransom involved, and a gun. So, in Tom Stoppard territory we’re not.
If anything, ”The Clearing” abuts the terrain of Clint Eastwood in his autumnal, ”ecce homo” phase, a landscape in which men once prized for their impenetrable masculine beauty admit to the toll that age has taken on their gently rusting physical and psychological armor. Yet the star, in the role of abducted rental-car magnate Wayne Hayes, isn’t Eastwood but Robert Redford. And because it’s rare to see him lower his guard even to the degree of letting his golden locks go browner, it’s Redford who absorbs all attention, despite the participation of unimpeachable Helen Mirren as Wayne’s dignified wife, Eileen, and redoubtable Willem Dafoe as Wayne’s financially strapped kidnapper, Arnold. ”The clearing” might well refer to those moments when one of the American cinema’s most image-conscious celebrities drops his veil. ”The clouding” might well refer to the rest of the picture.
Is there any man more pathetically surprised than a captain of industry handcuffed in his fine business suit and marched uphill through the woods by a male of lesser status in a cheap windbreaker? The plot unfolds simultaneously in the past (with scenes of shared joy in the Hayes’ long marriage) and the present (with hidden cracks in that union exposed by snoopy FBI agents); it also hikes along in the suburbs (where Eileen goes through the motions of dailiness while coping with her upended life) and the woods (where Arnold hustles Wayne at gunpoint toward the goal of a cabin).
But there’s something halting and ungainly in the film’s forward movement. Whether Wayne or Arnold ultimately prevails becomes of decreasing interest rather than increasing pleasurable anxiety as the two make their arduous way up their rocky man path. The Dutch-born Brugge has said that inspiration for the story came from intense media coverage of a real kidnapping in the Netherlands; I don’t think he counted on the disorienting effect of comparing Redford’s familiar sun-kissed Sundance image with the actual brown-freckled, everyday-man philosophizing, captive to captor. ”My wife doesn’t look at me the way she did 30 years ago. There’s nothing you can do about that,” Wayne tells Arnold with remarkable chattiness, considering. And for a moment we are so startled by the openness of the performance (from an actor used to feinting) that the rest of the story goes slack.
Inventive as Dafoe is in approximating a cohesive personality, Arnold remains, resolutely, a mechanism, a foil of discontent. Mirren, on the other hand, does something quietly heroic in addition to the efficiency with which she creates a realistic Eileen. The story is Redford’s, but with her trademark brisk practicality and ease in her own skin, she ransoms the actor from the constrictions of his self-definition as a romantic movie star. He can see clearly now, and so, momentarily, can we.