The Clearing is about trust and marriage. The couple in question is rental car executive Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) and his wife Eileen (Helen Mirren). They appear to have everything one could hope for: a beautiful house, financial success, and two loving children. However, a contemplative opening sequence showing the Hayes’ morning routine reveals tensions. Though they are civil, they speak across a distance, accommodating one another with an almost methodical diligence. Something seems off, from Eileen’s coldness as she opens the blinds to let the morning sunlight wake her sleeping husband, to the simple fact that she starts breakfast without him, preoccupied with the newspaper in front of her.
As Wayne drives his luxury car down the driveway to start his day, he stops to pick up the Wall Street Journal tossed toward his driveway. A man flags him down, waving an envelope. He introduces himself as Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe), talks his way into the car, then points a gun at Wayne and orders him to drive off.
The kidnapping sets in motion a thriller that doubles as a character study, delving into Wayne and Eileen’s strained marriage. As he’s led into the woods and forced to march at gunpoint, Wayne is prodded by Arnold (who has done his research on his captive’s business dealings and personal improprieties) to talk about himself. Wayne tries to negotiate, using the skills he employed in the boardroom to reason with Arnold.
With her story set in a time slightly ahead of Wayne’s, Eileen deals as best she can with the FBI agents who have taken residence in her home, hoping to capture the kidnapper. As lead investigator Ray Fuller (Matt Craven) delves deeper, he learns that Wayne had an affair with a coworker, that Eileen knew about it and thought it was over, though it wasn’t. Devastated, she not only confronts the mistress (Wendy Crewson), but also her complicated feelings for Wayne.
On the surface, The Clearing is an examination of a marriage that is emotionally empty. However, its subtext concerns the costs of the “American Dream,” the desperation that sets in when one reaches middle age and things haven’t turned out the way one hoped. In several short monologues, Arnold insinuates that Wayne, in deceiving his wife, has taken for granted his riches. By contrast, Mack’s hard work has borne bitter fruit. He believes he not only owes himself, but his wife, something more. Dafoe is delightfully creepy here, abandoning the histrionics that mark some of his performances. His calm and sense of entitlement allow viewers to identify with Mack even at his most disturbing.
Co-writer/director Pieter Jan Brugge weaves an emotionally sophisticated tale in The Clearing. As he notes in his commentary for Fox’s DVD, it’s a film about “two people who have slipped away and have become in many ways careless with one another and are going through the motions of a marriage.” Brugge’s commentary is as subtle as the film itself. He doesn’t offer any further insight, and simply narrates the film as it unfolds, providing small details into the crafting of the superb script (the DVD includes a copy of this script).
“There are levels of deception,” Wayne tells Arnold, and the film proposes there are also levels of love. Wayne cheats on his wife, but still loves her. In a telling scene, Eileen asks her daughter Jill (Melissa Sagemiller) what she would say if she could see her father one more time. Jill says she would tell him she loves him. Eileen’s response to the crisis is more complex. Unmoored by his absence, she doesn’t abandon Wayne, she becomes more strongly connected to him, not only for her family but for herself. A mature and rewarding film, The Clearing opens up honest questions concerning the values that keep a marriage together and the boundaries that tear it apart.