“The Clearing” is cruelly dark in its theme, even though it sort of ends with a whimper. It has moments of heart-pounding intensity, notably in the woods where it partially unfolds, but for the most part it has a deliberately slow pace. Many American filmmakers would have turned up the action factor given the material, but Netherlands-born Pieter Jan Brugge (who has produced several films including “The Insider”) instead crafts a character study that’s helped by an effective, minimalist score by Craig Armstrong.
What Jan Brugge and screenwriter Justin Hayte are trying to do is to balance an observation of the ties that bind with one man’s desperate actions. Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe) lost his job eight years ago. He has a wife of 24 years and two daughters, but he’s deeply dissatisfied with his existence, which involves sharing living quarters with a hard-to-deal-with father-in-law.
Arnie, looking for self-validation any way he can, in that respect brings to mind the unstable video expert played by Dafoe in “Auto Focus”. In that film, Dafoe’s character used his technological know-how to feed Bob Crane’s ego and sex addiction (and partake in the ensuing sexual escapades), pulling him away from his family. Here again, he plays a man who latches onto another out of envy only to spiral out of control. Kidnapping rich self-made entrepreneur Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) and forcefully walking him deep in the woods to a cabin is what Arnie thinks will get him enough ransom money to escape to a better life.
As a family drama, “The Clearing” has a certain grace in how it quietly shows the bonds between Wayne, his two grown-up children (Alessandro Nivola and Melissa Sagemiller) and his wife Eileen, superbly played by Helen Mirren in a performance combining dignity and vulnerability. There is a scene where the children recall an anecdote about their dad taking them to work that has a bittersweet beauty, as they can’t be sure they’ll see him again.
The minor problem I have with the movie is that, although Dafoe gives a good performance, what we see and learn about Arnie Mack hardly gives us reason to suspect the darkness of what he ends up doing. Arnie cares, in a weird way, about his hostage, providing him with walking shoes and offering cigarettes along the imposed trek. But there’s a least one instance where, if Wayne really wanted to, it seemed as if he could have walked out of the wilderness with little more than a blank stare from the sometimes puzzling Arnie.
There is however a shot late in the film, reflecting its title, that offers a clear view of the omnipresent woods (southern Appalachia) around the two main protagonists. And the image makes you think, yeah, a man could lose a lot of thing in those parts, even his mind if his moral fiber was already damaged enough. Is it the case with Arnie? You’ll judge for yourself.
But the important amount of screen time given to Eileen, and Mirren’s wonderful performance of a wounded yet strong and loving wife makes the film work to a good degree. Jan Brugge uses an incomplete jigsaw puzzle to set up its psychological portraits, but his film remains a noteworthy first directing effort.
Review by Jean-François Tremblay