The Clearing (January 5/04)
The Clearing is a very good thriller that could've (and should've) been a great one, but never quite makes it there thanks to some sluggish pacing and a resolution that's not entirely satisfying.
Robert Redford stars as Wayne Hayes, a successful businessman who is kidnapped by Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe) while heading to work one morning. Arnold takes Wayne to a remote forest, where the two begin a trek to a mysterious cabin - where Arnold insists he has several partners waiting. Meanwhile, Wayne's wife Eileen (Helen Mirren) contacts the FBI and begins the long, arduous process of bargaining for Arnold's return.
The Clearing's been directed by Pieter Jan Brugge, who clearly has no qualms about taking his time in setting up this story and establishing the characters. Working from a screenplay by Justin Haythe, Brugge imbues the movie with a sense of solemnity that effectively complements the material - though there's no denying that it takes an awfully long time to get into the movie because of it. However, by the time the film ends, we've really gotten a sense of how this event has impacted on the lives of several characters; Wayne, his wife, and his kidnapper obviously, but also the FBI agent in charge of the investigation (played by Matt Craven) and the Hayes' two kids (Alessandro Nivola and Melissa Sagemiller).
It's for that exact reason that The Clearing probably succeeds more as a drama than as a thriller - those expecting an exciting thrill-ride will surely be disappointed. But what really elevates the film to more than just a slow-paced character study is the acting, as Redford and Dafoe give expectedly brilliant performances. It would've been easy for Dafoe to turn Arnold into an over-the-top weirdo, but the actor takes a far more subtle route - turning the character into someone we're not entirely willing to hate. Redford is equally effective, and in fact, it's hard not to wish that the film would've just focused exclusively on these two characters (rather than occasionally cutting back to Eileen and the investigation).
It's because of the Oscar-level performances that we're willing to overlook some of the film's deficiencies, though it would've been nice to learn just why Arnold decided to kidnap Wayne. Still, The Clearing is an effective, smart little thriller - a rare thing nowadays.