Good trek through 'Clearing' until the end

Three years have passed since Robert Redford last appeared onscreen, and if nothing else, The Clearing reminds us what a riveting presence he can be; even as the years are showing on his once-boyish face, his charisma remains undimmed. If anything, age has added depth and conviction to his onscreen demeanor; if the passing years are reflected in that weather-beaten face, every crag and crevice has been well-earned, demanding respect and engendering empathy.

With a cast that also includes Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe, it's hard to imagine how this thriller could go wrong. For much of its length, it doesn't, thanks to some deft, time-shifting direction from first-timer Pieter Jan Brugge and an adroit story line that lulls audiences into thinking they understand more than they really do.


It's only when events need to be wrapped up that the movie stumbles, turning on a pair of violent acts - one that goes too far, another that doesn't go far enough - that appear far too arbitrary, too out-of-sync with the rest of the story.

Redford and Mirren are Wayne and Eileen Hayes, a well-to-do couple living a life of leisure in their suburban mansion. Although outwardly happy, something untoward seems to be bubbling beneath the surface. He's retired, having made his fortune by founding a car-rental company and then selling it. She's raised two children (both now somewhat estranged from their parents) and now occupies her days planning dinners and swimming in the pool.


Although neither seems ecstatic, Wayne and Eileen do seem content. Maybe that should be enough, but the looks in their eyes suggest it isn't.

Their worlds get thrown for a loop when Wayne is kidnapped and Eileen finds herself not only worrying about his fate (the kidnappers take their good time contacting her and making known their demands), but also serving as hostess for the couple's two children (Alessandro Nivola and Melissa Sagemiller), returning home in dad's hour of need, and a couple of FBI agents as clueless about what's really going on as she is.

Wayne, meanwhile, is being forced at gunpoint to trek through a forest to a shelter where, he's told, the rest of the kidnappers are awaiting him. The gunman is Arnold Mack (Dafoe), a former employee of Wayne's company who hasn't worked in two years, is living with his wife's parents, and can't rationalize why his former boss should be living comfortably while he can't keep it together. Mack's a little out of touch with reality (his rant about how hard it is to watch your wife go to work each day rings hollow in a world where two-income families are becoming the rule more than the exception), but that doesn't make his frustration any less threatening.

The film's narrative, as pieced together by Brugge and screenwriter Justin Haythe, cuts back and forth between Wayne and Eileen's stories. In a way that's truly sad, the kidnapping brings the couple closer together than they've been in years, if only because their emotional attachments to each other have never been so drastically tested, or so painfully obvious. Watching Redford and Mirren play a long-married couple whose attachment is stronger than either of them realized is one of the truest joys The Clearing offers.

It's too bad the filmmakers couldn't bring it all home with an ending that's not only devastating, but organic to the rest of the story; instead, the movie's abrupt close feels like a cheat. But in the hands of such at-the-top-of-their-game veterans as Redford, Mirren and Dafoe (whose Mack is caught in a game he tragically misunderstands), that final stumble is just a miscalculation, not a death sentence.


The Clearing

Starring Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, Willem Dafoe


Directed by Pieter Jan Brugge

Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Rated R (brief strong language)

Time 91 minutes