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The Clearing (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

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The Clearing

The Clearing


Starring Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, Willem Dafoe, Alessandro Nivola, Matt Craven, Melissa Sagemiller, Wendy Crewson, Larry Pine, Diana Scarwid, Elizabeth Ruscio, Gwen McGee, Sarah Koskoff, Graciela Marin, Mike Pniewski, Geoff McKnight, Audrey Wasilewski, Peter Gannon and Jacqi Loewy.

Screenplay by Justin Haythe.

Directed by Pieter Jan Brugge.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight  Pictures.  91 minutes.  Rated R.

In the middle of all the mindless action films being released in the summer, The Clearing is interesting counter-programming.  Instead of having to watch CGI undead jumping out at Hugh Jackman or twisters destroying Los Angeles, try this on for size.  A serious, thoughtful thriller starring three actors over 50.  No car chases.  No special effects.  Only one fight scene.  Just good actors reading intelligent dialogue.

Hmmm.  Risky, but it could work.

It helps that the acting is at such a high level.  Robert Redford and Willem Dafoe are acknowledged to be acting powerhouses.  In a nice surprise, as good as they are in their roles, they are somewhat eclipsed by Helen Mirren, who has always been deservedly respected but never really reached the wide audiences of her co-stars.

Redford and Mirren play Wayne and Eileen Hayes, a well-off couple who lives in an affluent area of Pittsburgh.  From a distance they appear to have a perfect marriage.  However, there are many cracks to their perfect lifestyle.  Through their problems, they do still love each other.

The problems are thrown into sharp focus when Wayne disappears one day.  At first, Eileen is not too worried, but by late in the night she reports him as missing.  It turns out that he has been kidnapped.

His kidnapper is Arnold Mack (Dafoe), a man who worked with Wayne during his better years.  He takes Wayne into the woods and forces him to walk cross-country, telling him they are going to meet the masterminds behind the plot.

Arnie tries to keep the upper hand and also be friendly, but soon the roles are reversed as Wayne’s natural leadership abilities and basic goodness eclipse Arnie’s weak-willed loser.

In the meantime, Eileen is forced to stay home and worry.  She also has to open up family secrets about Wayne’s infidelity and failing businesses to an FBI agent (Matt Craven) who has been assigned to stay at her home as they try to get Wayne home safely.

Redford has his strongest role in years (personally, I’d say since The Natural in 1984) as a man who is forced to confront not only his demons, but a complete lack of control for possibly the first time in his life.  It’s nice that an actor who has all too often relied on his good looks in recent years is willing to allow himself look unsympathetic.

Dafoe plays the latest in his rogues gallery of pathetic losers.  He’s very good in the role, but then again he always has been.  It’s no great stretch.

As I said earlier, the real star here is Mirren.  As an aging woman trying desperately to hold her family together as her world falls apart, she is quite simply stunning.  Eileen is at different points horrified, strong, embarrassed, compassionate, desperate and solid as a rock.  It is a wonderful performance, one worthy of at the very least consideration for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

But the audience knows in their gut that the film can’t possibly end happily for any of the major characters.  And, honestly, as interesting as the central premise is, the story sometimes bogs down into a slow, stately pace.  It is supposed to be dramatic, but it can border on being boring.

In the end, the movie isn’t quite as good as we’d like.  However, it’s nice that they at least tried to make a thought-provoking thriller about real people who have lived a full life and still make mistakes.  (7/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004  All rights reserved. Posted: July 12, 2004.

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