Into the Woods
Marriage, crime, explored in masterful thriller The Clearing.
Thursday, July 15, 2004
There’s a mystery at the heart of The Clearing, a remarkably assured and absorbing suspense drama from Pieter Jan Brugge. But it’s not necessarily the mystery the viewer expects. On paper, it looks like a conventional thriller plot: a kidnapping for ransom, a distraught family, a victim fighting for his life. But the deeper mystery Brugge asks us to ponder is how a long-married couple sustains (or fails to) a relationship of love over time.
Longtime Hollywood producer Brugge makes his directing debut with The Clearing. His attention to detail is masterful, from the way he composes each shot and conveys information, to the skillful way he organizes narrative chronology. The viewer is invited to sift through the information as Brugge deftly parcels it out, and come up with a plausible scenario. What’s fascinating is that there seem to be so many.
Robert Redford and Helen Mirren are ably paired as Wayne and Eileen Hayes, enjoying life at their estate in a woodsy enclave of Pittsburgh. Wayne is a self-made entrepreneur and consultant with the knack for making everyone he meets “feel important.” Eileen, his high school sweetheart, has been his lifelong helpmate: they’ve raised two children, now grown, and have worked hard for their financial freedom.
By contrast, Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe) is a nobody who once held a minor position at one of Wayne’s companies. He lost his job, along with the respect of his wife; they’ve had to move in with her father in “a house of disappointed people.” One morning, in a move of desperate audacity, Arnold abducts Wayne and his Lexus right out of the Hayes’ driveway.
When Wayne doesn’t show up for dinner and doesn’t respond to his cell, Eileen calls the cops. Her grown kids arrive, and the family places itself under the guidance of FBI agent Fuller (Matt Craven) while ransom demands begin to trickle in. In alternating scenes, Arnold spirits Wayne off to a lush, almost primordial forest far out of the city, herding him at gunpoint through the terrain for a rendezvous with “some guys” in a cabin.
From these simple elements, Brugge builds suspense as well as suspicion—with very little violence and no car chases, explosives, or screaming matches. A great deal of internal anxiety is generated on the homefront; as the family members struggle to keep their emotions in check, nagging questions arise.
The pas de deux between Wayne and Arnold grows thornier the deeper into the woods they go. Far from a slick and ruthless criminal, Arnold is anxious and apologetic. Searching for a way to work his fabled charisma, Wayne initiates conversation about life, work, and fate.
It’s fun to see a male star of Redford’s magnitude
partnering a female co-star like Mirren, whose age and
presence are comparable to his. There are full lives lived in
both their faces, and part of what’s interesting about the
movie is trying to imagine what sort of life the characters
built together beneath the surface gloss.
THE CLEARING (Three Stars)
Directed by Pieter Jan Brugge
Starring Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, and Willem Dafoe.
(Rated R, 91 min.) At the State Theater