As wealthy, world-weary Pittsburgh businessman Wayne Hayes, Robert Redford is typically low-key. Or at least he is until Wayne faces what might be termed an existential crisis, when he is kidnapped by the bitter and forlorn Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe). Even then, it takes Wayne some time to work himself into an emotional wallop. And by that time, Arnold is far ahead of him on the rage-against-the-world scale that Wayne hasn’t got a chance.
At its least interesting, Pieter Jan Brugge’s The Clearing turns on the men’s erratic interacting over a day and most of a night, as Arnold makes Wayne climb a grassy mountainside at gunpoint. But as they come to understand one another, or more banally, come to understand themselves, the film also cuts regularly to Wayne’s family as they undergo the trauma of his disappearance and then the ransom demands. These include his outwardly gentle and inwardly steely wife Eileen (the redoubtable Helen Mirren), as well as his grown children — Tim (Alessandro Nivola) and Jill (Melissa Sagemiller) — who return to the posh Hayes home to comfort their mother in her time of need.
Their arrival is complicated by that of a couple of FBI agents, Ray (Matt Craven) and his partner Kathleen (Gwen McGee). While he insinuates himself into the daily space of his hosts, she tends to hang about in corners, listening as he asks questions. Ray’s self-positioning — at the breakfast table in the morning, in the study late at night — only adds to the sense of displacement so clearly weighing on Eileen and her kids. Though again, the girl, Jill, tends to hang round the edges of the frame, while the boy, Tim, is more vocally and visibly upset at what the calamity reveals about the family (more specifically, his parents’ marriage) he either took for granted or willfully disregarded.
Brought together by a combination of fear, desperation, and disruption that they have plainly not felt before (the Hayes are well off, to say the least), the family structure doesn’t so much unravel as it wears away, swiftly and, strangely, given the seeming urgency of the situation, without much resistance. Though the siblings briefly allude to their dad’s affair with a former employee, Louise (Wendy Crewson), specifically with regard to their mother’s knowledge of it, they spend most of their onscreen time accepting or rejecting advice from their newly resident “experts” in kidnapping, the agents.
Ray looks especially unhappy to be such an expert. Craven is, perhaps ironically, an actor of the Redfordian persuasion, for whom less is, if not exactly more, quite effective. As Ray hunkers down over his cereal at Eileen’s table, he looks initially embarrassed but, within seconds, he looks more tired of pretending to be embarrassed. He’s seen too many kidnapping cases, you’re guessing (because he doesn’t say much to that end), and he knows they don’t often turn out well. At the same time, this is new emotional territory for Eileen, and she’s sequentially disturbed, intrigued, and then, in an odd way, seduced by her guest’s exhausted authority. That is, though she’s annoyed that Ray pries into her family’s secrets (she wants to protect her kids, still, from their father’s infidelities), she’s also willing to share her loss — her multiple losses, really — with a stranger who reveals to her, cryptically, that he has also suffered loss, perhaps even brought it on himself.
And so Ray and Eileen share a certain grief, not exactly articulated, but hovering between them. This doesn’t lead to revelation or to resolution, but it does suggest the extent to which sorrow, rage, and regret might shape lives, inside and outside gated enclaves. Ray should be familiar with it, it’s his job. But Eileen has also made her peace with grief and disappointment, accepting her deceptive husband, even willing herself to believe he wouldn’t deceive her again.
It’s this willingness that makes the first moments of The Clearing so dense and enigmatic. Wayne leaves for work, she settles into her routine, swimming in their pretty pool, shopping, preparing for dinner guests whom Wayne doesn’t really want to see. When he doesn’t show up, she’s irritated more than worried (“So sorry Wayne couldn’t be here,” she murmurs by way of non-cover-up), and only later do you learn how such behavior — whether a result of distraction or subterfuge — might be familiar to her, or more precisely, why she’s not alarmed. When she finally does call the police, late that evening, she’s still partly angry, not imagining the dreadful truth about to descend upon her.
Eileen’s emotional and moral difficulties, even including her too melodramatic visit with the mistress, pulse with a kind of believable pain (this in large measure because Mirren conveys her absolute reluctance to let go, in any sense). She nurtures her children’s good memories of their father (Tim recalls his father’s extraordinary talent to make “you feel like you were the center of the world”), but it costs her. She knows the truth and the lies, and her ability to live with both, even to appreciate both, makes her generous at the same time that she is self-protective.
Much less satisfying, the film’s other large chunk of “coming to terms” focuses on Wayne and Arnold, the single day that is intercut with the longer period endured by the family (this juggling of time frames is the film’s most complicated maneuver). Here the dialogue (screenplay by Justin Haythe) is alternately improbable and prosaic. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t condescend to me, Wayne,” blusters Arnold. “I know how the world works. That’s why I’m out here.” And with that, uttered early in their journey, Arnold reveals exactly how much he doesn’t know, as he imagines his kidnapping scheme is going to grant him not only big money, but big vengeance on a rich guy who never cared about the little people stuck on the ladder rungs below him.
Self-righteous amateur criminal that he is, Arnold has done his homework, using his knowledge of Wayne’s mendacity to justify his own actions. Their moral measuring is drearily predictable. Arnold confesses that his wife is unaware of his scheme to zip them away to tropical island paradise, but tries to zing Wayne for his own cheating. He doesn’t have a chance against Wayne, successful precisely because he’s so smooth. “There are levels of deception, Arnold, and this one’s a whopper.” Too true.