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CLEARING, THE(director/producer: Pieter Jan Brugge; screenwriters: Justin Haythe/based on a story by Mr. Brugge and Mr. Haythe; cinematographer: Denis Lenoir; editor: Kevin Tent; music: Craig Armstrong; cast: Robert Redford (Wayne Hayes), Helen Mirren (Eileen Hayes), Willem Dafoe (Arnold Mack), Alessandro Nivola (Tim Hayes), Matt Craven (Agent Fuller), Melissa Sagemiller (Jill Hayes), Wendy Crewson (Louise Miller); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Jonah Smith/Palmer West; Fox Searchlight; 2004)
“A great cast consisting of Robert Redford, Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A great cast consisting of Robert Redford, Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe star in Dutch film producer Pieter Jan Brugge’s credible debut feature (he was the producer of Bulworth and The Insider). It’s a low-key psychological thriller based on the story by Mr. Brugge and scripted by Justin Haythe. Brugge based it on an actual event in his homeland. The fine acting proves greater than the almost surprise free but earnest kidnapping narrative, which will end with a whimper instead of a bang.

Successful businessman Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) is married for the last thirty years to his high school sweetheart Eileen (Helen Mirren), having raised a grown son and daughter and in their senior years are living a life of luxury in a posh house in the suburbs of Pittsburgh after realizing the American Dream. He started from the bottom as the son of a mill worker and after college created a lucrative car-rental business, which the magnate recently sold for a cool 42 million dollars. Wayne gets kidnapped one morning outside the gates of his mansion by a man calling himself Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe). He’s a loser who lives with his lowbrow wife in her father’s bungalow in a working-class area of Pittsburgh, who has become disgruntled after being a good worker for 17 years and then losing his office job through no fault of his own due to downsizing. Arnold brings Wayne out to a remote mountainous area in the woods and they go hiking to find a cabin where Arnold says he will turn him over to the men who planned the kidnapping. In the process the two picnic in the woods and exchange views on how differently they see life, about the economic divide and how they each love their wives. Wayne must relate to this psychologically warped ex-employee, without being the one in control. In their one prior meeting together over coffee many years ago, which Wayne doesn’t recall, Arnold found Wayne to be gracious and inspiring.

The hostage story in the woods runs parallel with the equally compelling story on the home front, as loyal but insecure wife Eileen huddles in the immaculate House & Garden model of a house with her concerned children Tim (Nivola) and Jill (Sagemiller) to wait word on the kidnapping. She was at first worried that he ran away from her, but as the kidnapping progresses her fear that she might never see her hubby again overwhelms her. Eileen tries to hide her grief by carrying on in the regal way she normally would. Also in the house monitoring the situation are a team of FBI investigators headed by the polite but efficient Agent Fuller (Matt Craven).

It’s sleekly presented as a high-class melodrama, where the Hayes’s marriage is pieced together and is given equal importance to the tense keynote scene of Eileen paying off the ransom. Violence seems like an afterthought, or something that is too vulgar to show. When there is blood spilled, there’s an apology given.

The drama easily cuts back from Wayne trying to match wits with the amateur kidnapper who dreamed up his plan just like Wayne envisioned his business venture, to the home front where Wayne’s affair with office worker Louise Miller (Crewson), who greatly admired her boss, is exposed. The FBI reveals to the startled but always poised Eileen that they have evidence the relationship continued even after Louise was dismissed and Wayne promised it was over.

Feelings must be cleared up again by both hubby and wife, as the narrative uses the kidnapping as a chance to do just that. It also keeps the battle between the classes as front and center to the story.

Warning: possible spoiler in the next paragraph.

The Clearing gets its ironical title from the location in the woods where the ransom drop is to be made. A case can also be made that the title refers to how emotionally satisfied Eileen becomes after being assured her hubby really loved her, as all doubts are cleared up by the climax. She can happily lounge around the mansion alone without a care in the world now that she’s filled with pleasant memories of marital bliss.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”