A film review by Craig J. Koban


2004, R, 91 mins.

Wayne Hayes: Robert Redford / Arnold "Arn" Mack: Willem Dafoe / Eileen Hayes: Helen Mirren / Agent Fuller: Matt Creven / Louise Miller: Wendy Crewson / Tim Hayes: Alessandro Nivola / Jill Hayes: Melissa Sagemiller

Directed by Pieter Jan Brugge / Written by Brugge and Justin Haythe

THE CLEARING  is a remarkably dense emotional film about a deceptively simple premise: a rich man is kidnapped by a poor man and is held for ransom.  Okay, this story has been told time and time again throughout dozen of films, nearly to the point of it becoming a mundane thrill ride through the cliché factory.  There is definitely not much new to explore with this predictable genre, so I consider it a minor miracle that THE CLEARING manages to be such a thoughtful, intrinsically fascinating, well-paced thriller. 

Yes, it’s a kidnap thriller with all of the basic elements that are prescribed for these films, but what sets it apart from the rest is how rich it is in terms of characters and narrative.  This is not your standard portrait of an insane antagonist matching wits versus a straight arrow protagonist.  Instead, it’s a revealing exploration into the minds of its characters.  THE CLEARING has the patience to explore its personalities and have them engage more in introspective dialogue and less in shooting and chasing.  Pacing, acting, and performances are the prime catalyst for the film’s success, which is rare to see in our modern world of crime thrillers. 

THE CLEARING tells the story of a wealthy self-made millionaire named Wayne Hayes (the still dependable and resourceful Robert Redford).  The beginning of the film starts simply and quietly with a pleasant morning breakfast between Wayne and his wife Eileen (Helen Mirren).  Overall, it seems like any other ordinary morning for any ordinary married couple.  They sit down, drink their coffee, quickly eat their breakfast, and engage in idle chitchat about the week’s social activities away from work.  The Hayes’ are very well off, as their impressive stonewalled mansion indicates.  After breakfast the couple kisses one another goodbye and Wayne gets into his car and slowly backs out of his driveway.  A man that he appears to have met before in the past stops him.  The man, Arnold (Willem Dafoe, in another disquieting and chilling performance) soon pulls out a gun and gets into the car.  The proverbial kidnapping has begun, all under the unsuspecting eyes of Eileen. 

It seems that Arnold is an unemployed worker who is the exact polar opposite of the wealthy Wayne.  Yet, Arnold is not the typical maniacal villain that is often the centerpieces of these types of films.  He is a rather odd, introverted, soft-spoken, shy, well-mannered and polite man.  He lives a life of disappointment, out of work and being forced to live with his wife at her father’s old suburban home.  The first glimpses of him in the film reinforce his personality and manner.  We see him get up and get ready for what appears to be a day of work, but when he puts on a fake moustache you just know that something is not ordinary about this man.  The rest of his routine gets progressively odder, as he leaves home and gets on a commuter train and carries a vanilla envelope containing what appears to be important papers. 

When it is finally revealed that he in fact is the kidnapper it’s a bit of a surprise.  Arnold seems so pacifistic and calm, and when he initially approaches Wayne he does so with the calmness and sincerity of anyone trying to say hello to an old friend from the past.  Wayne, not truly recognizing Arnold, nevertheless expresses a sensitive ear to him, maybe out of polite good manners.  Surly, as a businessman, the job requires him to do so on a constant basis.  Unfortunately for Wayne, a brief hello and a friendly handshake turns into a kidnapping at gunpoint that eventually leads to the forests on the outskirts of the city. 

Once the film turns to the forest the tone and mood continue to go south really fast.  Yet, Arnold seems bound and determined to make Wayne feel as comfortable and at peace as possible.  Yes, he has him handcuffed and always has a gun pointed on him, but he actually manages to get Wayne a pair of hiking shoes that are his size for the long trek through the dense woods.  Wayne, when asked if the shoes are all right, responds with both a sigh of relief and surprise.  They fit, very well actually, maybe because Arnold has truly done his homework on Wayne. 

Arnold has apparently studied him in great detail, and it is through their often-magnanimous conversations that we get a more thorough picture of Wayne.  He was a self-made millionaire who bought and sold a car company at the right time.  Wayne lives the rich life, wears the best clothes, drives the best cars, and lives in a luxurious home.  Maybe all of this bothers Arnold, but as Wayne wisely points out to him, he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth; he actually worked for his good fortunes, and worked hard.  He tries many times with his good negotiator skills to talk Arnold out of the kidnapping.  Arnold, being a very polite man, gives Wayne all the time in the world to talk and actually listens to him.  Yet, he is not a professional criminal and tells Wayne that his job is to merely take home to a cottage and the end of the trail…or is this all to his scheme? 

As the day grows longer and day becomes night, Eileen becomes increasingly aware of the fact that something must have happened to her husband, especially when he fails to make an important dinner engagement.  Within no time, Eileen begins to deal with an FBI agent (Matt Craven) as well as with her two children.  What’s revealing is in how honest and open the family members are with one another about probing the reasons as for their father’s disappearance (one child does not ignore the possibility that maybe her father left her mom).  The possibility of Wayne leaving Eileen has credence to her, as we discover that he did have an affair once in their marriage.  Nevertheless, the family and the FBI agent grow to realize that kidnapping is the likely possibility and begin to mentally weigh in the options for a safe retrieval.  The FBI agent makes one extremely wise assertion:  Never give into the kidnappers ransom demands until they have proof of life, otherwise, no deal. 

Going any farther into exploring the plot proves to be difficult at this point because the story propels to a conclusion and a third act that is both simultaneously chilling, eerie and very surprising.  What I can tell you is that, despite the final outcome, it just feels like the right outcome, and it may or may not be what you were expecting.  That’s part of the richness and freshness to this film – it leads you on a character-driven odyssey that delves into the people of the story and establishes them to act one way and they proceed to go in another direction.  The audience may scream foul at the final actions of one character in particular, but in retrospect, I don’t think that it would have been altogether difficult for many of us to do the same thing under similar circumstances. 

Great praise needs to be given to director Pieter Jan Brugge, a producer turned director who keenly knows how to take the conventions of the crime thriller and stand some of them on their head.  I like the way he creates a sort of dark and ominous ambiguity in the proceedings.  We never really know where the cottage is, nor do we really get a clear picture as to why Arnold is kidnapping Wayne.  There is a sense of dangerous randomness to the story, which sort of resonates with how kidnappings happen in real life.  He also does an expert job of telling multiple storylines with disjointed editing, and he intercuts this with the story of the kidnapping with the grief of the wife effectively.  This editing also involves skipping around in time back and forth ala PULP FICTION, which serves the purpose of putting the pieces together and revealing key things to the audience just when they feel they are lost.  This technique has been overused in modern films lately, but here it seems to work fine. 

Brugge also gets strong work out of his respective actors.  Helen Mirren gets deep into the heart of her character, and we sense her many facets of pain throughout the narrative.  We sense her dread when she faces the possibility of kidnapping, but we also are privy to the quieter and trickier moments when she discuss Wayne’s affair with the FBI agent, during which her deep resentment comes through.  Willem Dafoe gives one of his better low-key performances in recent memory.  He realizes, like Robin Williams knew in ONE HOUR PHOTO, that playing down your characters is often more effective than playing it broadly for sinister effect.  He gives Arnold so many dimensions – he’s a timid man who feels that he is a loser, but he will also do anything for his chance to strike it rich with the kidnapping.  He may have made a lunch for Wayne to eat on their long hike as a gesture of kindness, but he is also not afraid to shoot him if needed. 

Wayne, as played by Redford, may be the most difficult character to pull off, and he is the frank subject of many of their cat and mouse verbal battles.  Redford, charismatic and firm standing as he has ever been, gives Wayne the right balance of fear, anger, and resentment with a sort of common sense intelligence and cunning.  He’s scared for his life, to be sure, but he’s never afraid to challenge Arnold, both verbally and physically.  Amazingly, even after nearly 40 years as a leading man, Redford still has some fire in him. and he is always entertaining to watch.

THE CLEARING is a very absorbing kidnapping thriller, one that never wavers in out attention or interest.  They key to this is clearly in the performances and the story.  Director Brugge keeps things going with the right pace and gets solids work out of all his actors.  If anything, THE CLEARING could have benefited by being a bit longer (its 90 minute running time could have been stretch into something more meatier, and the third act came to a halt rather quickly), but it still remains a well-made effort on the filmmaker’s part in terms of counter programming.  There was a kidnapping thriller from earlier in the year called MAN ON FIRE, which had Denzel Washington trying to save a kidnapped child.  That film was plagued with lapses in logic and reality, and seemed more interested in telling a story of revenge than really focusing in its characters.  THE CLEARING is the antithesis to MAN ON FIRE.  There are no big car chases, no explosions, no vengeful fisticuffs, and not much gunplay.  Okay, a few shots are fired, but when they come, it's really kind of terrifying, and it works because of intelligence the film places on its personalities.  THE CLEARING gives legitimacy back to a genre that has seemingly run out of gas, and it just may make you want to think twice about stopping to say hello to a stranger as you are going to work.

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