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The Clearing is an odd little movie that is bound to frustrate many viewers. The film appears to be a kidnapping thriller, yet it's lacking in nearly all basic thriller ingredients -- it has almost no violence, little mystery, and only one brief chase scene. Every scene that one expects to build to some sort of crescendo or dramatic revelation doesn't. Despite all it lacks, The Clearing does offer some rewards.
The movie (rated R for brief strong language) features strong performances from a trio of fine actors: Robert Redford, Willem Defoe, and Helen Mirren. Wayne (Mr. Redford) and Eileen (Ms. Mirren) Hayes live a comfortable life outside of Pittsburgh. He's built a fortune on rental cars; she spends her days shopping and swimming. That doesn't tell the whole story, though, as the movie digs deeper into the couple's life and relationship, with the kidnapping simply providing a pretext for this quiet inward gaze.
As Wayne leaves his beautifully appointed estate one morning, Arnold Mack (Mr. Dafoe) greets him at the end of his driveway. Arnold seems to be everything that Wayne is not -- unsuccessful, unhappy, at a dead end. He abducts Wayne at gunpoint and leads him on a long hike through the Pennsylvania woods. While Arnold and Wayne trudge through the brush, Eileen is encamped back in her home with her two adult children and the FBI agents assigned to the case.
The film, lacking much in the way of action, is talky. The sometimes labored dialogue would have fallen flat coming from lesser actors than Mr. Dafoe and Mr. Redford -- each feeling the other out as they make their way toward the title destination, ostensibly to meet up with the masterminds behind the crime. The movie really belongs to Ms. Mirren, however, who demonstrates with pursed lips and a concentrated gaze that Eileen is no ineffectual, pampered, wealthy housewife.
There's not much to drive The Clearing forward, nor even to reach a satisfying conclusion. First-time director Pieter Jan Brugge fixes his film on a few simple but engaging images (the two men buried deep in the forest and Eileen surrounded by cold luxury) and equally simple themes (love and loss), and ends, quite simply, leaving his characters with little more than a deeper understanding of each other.