Shallow as it may seem to the Oscar-winning director, he once reigned as Hollywood’s handsomest man and, yes, he still has it. But, aging beauty is not enough unto itself to sell a movie. Playing a kidnapped corporate millionaire, Redford is certainly exercising his acting muscles in “The Clearing.” But, his famous restraint gets the better of him, so the promise of fireworks fizzles. Even bad guy Willem Dafoe keeps things low-key. We’re left with a by-the-numbers, high-brow suspense thriller, which is too tasteful for its own good.
What first-time director Pieter Jan Brugge is going for is a psychological study of supposedly squeaky-clean captain of industry Wayne Haynes (Redford), who has a few worms under his façade. The flaws are revealed in conversations with his captor Arnold Mack (Dafoe) as they hike to an apparent rendezvous point with other kidnappers in the Great Smoky Mountains. A big stylistic trick involves scenes with Haynes and Mack inter-cut with shots of FBI agent Fuller (Matt Craven) working with the victim’s family members, wife Eileen (Helen Mirren) and adult children Tim (Alessandro Nivola) and Jill (Melissa Sagemiller). We’re led to believe that the two stories are happening at the same time. They’re not. When we catch on to the director’s slight of hand, the shock is so subtle that it has little effect.
Written by Justin Haythe, “The Clearing” is geared to the art house circuit, which is evident in its title (a reference to an alleged location and/or the “clearing” away of lies). Still, enlisting heavyweight thespians in a thriller is a pretext for excitement or, at least, depth in the acting department. While Mirren’s Eileen shows pain with the knowledge of Wayne’s ongoing adultery, it appears as no worse than mild indigestion. At one point, Redford and Dafoe get down and dirty in a bout of mud wrestling, but stops short of being a fight to the death. I will say that Redford does show anger enough to use the “s” word.
For diehard Redford fans, “The Clearing” is worth a look. Just wait until it hits the video stores.