In THE CLEARING, Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) and Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe)
are two guys having breakfast at their respective houses before they go off to
work. Wayne, who has his elegant breakfast beside his pool with his wife,
Eileen (Helen Mirren), is obviously very well off. Given his age and the size
of his mansion, one might suspect he was already retired to a life of luxury,
if it wasn't clear that he was headed into the office. Later we learn that he
made his fortune with a rental car company he founded and that he undoubtedly
doesn't need to work any more. Wayne and Eileen give off the complacent and
awkward vibes of a long-time married couple whose relationship has grown a
little stale. They both love each other but seem unsure of what their lives
are all about now that the kids have grown up and left home.
In contrast, Arnold's small kitchen provides just enough room for him to
quickly woof down a bowl of cereal before he is off on the bus to work. (Wayne
drives a beautiful new Lexus, while his wife has a couple-of-year old Mercedes.
No public transportation for them.) Later we will find that Arnold is
actually unemployed and that, as he puts it, he and his wife, who stay with her
father, live in "a household of disappointment." Arnold has recently found
work. He has been hired by a group of criminals to kidnap Wayne and bring him
to them. When Arnold's work is done, he and his wife can move to "some place
We've all seen a lot kidnapping thrillers -- it's a well worn genre -- but none
like THE CLEARING, which is as much a character study as it is a mystery.
Although it is a relatively short movie, running just an hour and a half,
director Pieter Jan Brugge sets a very methodical, leisurely pace with many an
eerie silence to punctuate the tale. As soon as Eileen realizes what has
happened and a small FBI team led by Agent Fuller (Matt Craven) has set up
residence in her house, she freezes like a deer caught in the headlights. But,
she is used to coping, after years of having a husband who traveled the globe
and who had an affair, so she keeps the household going, even insisting on
hosting a small birthday party for her year-old grandson. But the small smile
she has pasted to her face clearly masks the hurt she is feeling.
The movie is constructed out of two parallel stories. In one, Wayne and Arnold
trudge their way deep into the mountainous woods in order to reach a very
remote cabin, so that Arnold can collect his fee and flee. Meanwhile back at
Hayes house, Eileen, her two adult kids and the FBI plan strategy on how to
deal with the kidnappers. Remarkably, Arnold and Agent Fuller share similar
personality traits in that they are quiet and polite, exceedingly polite in
Arnold's case, which is strange for someone in his new line of work. The
evolving relationship between Arnold and Wayne is probably the best part of the
picture, but Mirren's performance is one of her best ever. Unlike RAISING
HELEN, which wasted her talents, THE CLEARING gets maximum benefit from
Mirren's underplayed but mesmerizing piece of acting.
As the movie gets to its conclusion, it isn't clear how everything will be
resolved. You'll be with it every second and intrigued to its last, carefully
THE CLEARING runs 1:31. It is rated R for "brief strong language" and would be
acceptable for kids around 12 and up.
Copyright © 2004 Steve Rhodes