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The Clearing

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: The Clearing

Starring: Robert Redford, Willem Dafoe
Director: Pieter Jan Brugge
Rated: R
RunTime: 91 Minutes
Release Date: July 2004
Genres: Drama, Suspense


*Also starring: Helen Mirren, Melissa Sagemiller, Matt Craven, Alessandro Nivola, Wendy Crewson, Peter Gannon, Geoff McKnight



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Review by Harvey Karten
3½ stars out of 4

The Patty Hearst case made terrific spreads for the media for months, and justifiably so. This heir to what would today be a fortune of a few billion dollars was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a Marxist group with absolute contempt for the "exploiting robber barons. Yet Ms. Hearst bonded with her abductors to such an extent that she joined them in making an armed robbery on a bank. How could this happen? Sociologists call this Stockholm Syndrome–the tendency of people who are in the hands of captors to find common ground with them, perhaps from a sense of guilt for their own good fortune.

"The Clearing" is not quite the same as the Patty Hearst story but bears enough similarities to make one think back to that event. A film whose title has a double meaning–the clearing representing the woods to which a kidnapper takes his victim, and also the way that events in the lives of the two are cleared up–"The Clearing is an intriguing story that has only a few of the fiery melodramatics that you'd expect if this were a big-budget Hollywood film, and is all the stronger for its respect for the audience. The film varies from family drama to pulse-raising thriller, with debut director Pieter Jan Brugge illustrating Justin Haythe first-time screenplay by placing parallel threads into two separate time frames to show what's happening in the luxury mansion when Eileen Hayes notes that her husband is missing followed by a reenactment of the actual kidnapping of Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) by Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe).

While Eileen confers with her grown children, Tim (Alessandro Nivola) and Jill (Melissa Sagemiller) and also with Agent Ray Fuller (Matt Craven), we subsequently are privy to the actual abduction wherein Arnold tricks Wayne into opening the door of the wealthy man's Mercedes, getting in, and leading him into the woods where, we're told, he will be picked up by some men in a cabin.

Not much goes on in the Hayes mansion (actually filmed in an Atlanta suburb whereas the title clearing is filmed in Asheville, North Carolina), since Eileen seems almost nonchalant about her missing husband. She carries on as though this were an everyday event, swimming in her pool and holding a birthday party for her one-year-old grandchild. Nor is there particular tension in the FBI chase after the criminal. What separates this film from others of the genre is the conversations between victim and captor, the unemployed loser, Arnold, complains that he has to send his wife to work as a waitress while Wayne enjoys the privileges of his money.

We find out that things are seldom what they seem. Wayne has lost something he can never get back. Because of his attention to his work, particularly the car rental business that raked in a fortune for him, he scarcely paid attention to his children and presumably not much more to his wife. What's not convincing is Wayne's attempt to show that he shares lots of common ground with the unhappy Arnold, as if to say that money does not buy happiness. (Maybe so, but give me a couple of million and let me shop around a while for it.)

The standout feature is the powerful performances of the three leads: the always reliable Helen Mirren, who does not overplay her grief; Willem Dafoe, a natural for a villain since he played a title role in "Gods and Monsters," and Robert Redford who, though not mentioned in the press notes, is exquisitely made up to look ten years older and almost ordinary.

Copyright © 2004 Harvey Karten

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