The Clearing (2004)

I bought this movie despite some extraordinarily mixed reviews, especially considering the cast we’re dealing with. At least, I seem to recall reviews being mixed, I could be wrong.

The first thing that struck me was how cold, spartan and restrained the film is. Most of the sounds we hear, outside occasional ambient ones, are within the frame only. No one says anything from offscreen except, at most, in simple conversation. Lines are short and to the point, yet still feel natural. It’s almost sterile, but, no, it isn’t Kubrick, it’s more a feeling of…inevitability? Everything seems to run just how it should, in spite of the kind of people we’re dealing with, in spite of the unusual circumstances, in spite of the many, many possibilities that could factor into such a situation. Yet, still, there’s definitely life in it. Despite the basic subject matter, even throughout there’s a sense of love and hope, even as things are reeled off that should destroy or at least decrease that feeling. There is no major excitement here; no great big chases or shootouts or big, burly FBI agents (Matt Craven plays the lead agent, and is a quiet, average sort of guy). No big heroes or monstrous villains.

While I am in some ways reluctant to reveal the nature of the plot, the great majority of the movie IS centered on it, so it’s difficult to avoid. Wayne Hays (Robert Redford) is a successful businessman married to Eileen Hays (Helen Mirren) who leaves for work one morning, promising his wife to be home at six, and he doesn’t show. Eileen calls him angrily hoping he’s on the way, apologizes to their guests for his absence and then sits alone waiting for him to return. When the hours stretch too far for her, she calls the police and reports him missing. They soon find his car, no signs of struggle or break-in, with the paper he stopped to get sitting in the back with his bag.

Now we are back to that morning, and we see what Wayne saw–a man approaches his car and introduces himself as Arnold Mack (Willem DaFoe), saying he knew Wayne years ago. He has a manilla envelope and says he was told to show the contents to Wayne. Inside are pictures of Eileen at their pool, which, of course, is not something Wayne is happy to see. Arnold uses this as leverage to kidnap Wayne, and now we know for certain where it is he went that morning. The rest of the movie follows Arnold leading Wayne to a cabin in the woods where his employers are waiting to ransom him, and the parallel of Eileen and the two grown children who make up Wayne’s family as they try to meet the demands and process that Arnold requires. We see repeatedly signs that this story is further ahead, as multiple days are spoken of and gone through, while Arnold and wayne are still making their way through the woods that first day. They discuss their pasts on a low level, but nothing terribly revealing about Wayne comes out–or even all that revealing about Arnold.

Even in Eileen’s story, while we learn that Wayne had an affair with an employee which has ended–and then that it continued in some fashion afterward, we still don’t learn an awful lot about the characters. Yet, these three are so stellar at their craft, we feel we know and care about all three–yes, three–of them very honestly. Where the story goes from here, as I say, feels inevitable, yet is not necessarily what you do or do not expect. It simply is, by virtue of this cold, quiet, minimalistic approach to the plot, writing and filming. It moves fairly quickly, despite the seemingly slow pacing. It’s an interesting balance, as things continue to happen yet it seems to be moving in real time at the same time. Perhaps it’s a balance between the two timelines, but it feels more like it was just exquisitely crafted; it feels as if someone crossed a movie like In the Bedroom with Ransom, maintained the essential feel of In the Bedroom, as a serious, well-acted, quiet drama, but kept the sort of hopeful, “it’s just a movie, even though it feels pretty real,” sort of tone that most engaging big-budget thrillers hold. We don’t ever feel patronized as viewers, like they’re trying to perfectly explain the process of kidnapping and negotiating to us, or like the characters are bigger-than-life caricatures instead of actual characters, yet we don’t get that oppressive feeling that a realistic drama tends to have. It was very interesting to see and feel this, and I was quiet pleased–even if I am biased by my appreciation of Willem DaFoe and Robert Redford–and now Helen Mirren, who I don’t belive I had seen an awful lot of before–though I do have Gosford Park to look forward to still.

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