Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, and Willem Dafoe shine in a dark suspense tale.
Welcome to Missed Connections, a weekly column where I get to highlight films that are little known and/or unfairly maligned. I’ll be shining a light in two directions ‐ I hope to introduce you to movies you’ve never seen and possibly never heard of, and I’ll attempt to defend films that history, critical consensus, and maybe even your own memories haven’t been very kind to.
This week’s pick features a powerhouse trio of lead actors who come together in a story about a crime, the people involved, and the sad realization of only seeing relationships in the rear-view mirror.
Wayne (Robert Redford) ran a successful business in his earlier years, and while he’s since retired officially he still heads into the office on a regular basis to keep busy. He and his wife Eileen (Helen Mirren) are happy, and as he heads off to work one morning neither are aware that it just might be their last time together. Unbeknownst to her, Wayne’s abducted at gunpoint before he even exits the driveway, and she only grows suspicious when he doesn’t make it home for dinner. Or bedtime. Or breakfast the next morning.
We see her grow concerned as the days pass, and with their son (Alessandro Nivola) and daughter (Melissa Sagemiller) by her side she waits with the FBI for word from the kidnappers. She learns some truths about her husband she was unaware of while others are strengthened in her resolve. Running parallel to her increasing stress and sorrow is the kidnapping itself and the experience endured by Wayne.
A man named Arnold (Willem Dafoe) forces him to drive to a parking garage where they leave Wayne’s car behind, move into a waiting one, and then head towards a nearby forest. They move into the woods on foot, and the silence between them shifts towards conversation as Wayne attempts to figure out who Arnold is and why he’s doing this. The talk segues quickly from themselves to family, and it’s there where honesty, guilt, and regret become the focus.
The Clearing is the single (feature) directorial effort by Pieter Jan Brugge whose career has instead focused on the production side of film and television, but it’s well-crafted enough to make you wish he’d give directing another shot. It’s also his story idea that writer Justin Haythe (The Lone Ranger, A Cure for Wellness) turned into a simple and suspenseful escalation of emotion.
We move between the two threads — Wayne with his captor and Eileen with her concern — and while there are physical, practical moments and scenes of tension and suspense the power comes from the characters realizations. Their love for each other is crystal clear, but as the years of their life together passed it became something they accepted and took for granted. It took this inciting incident, this potential tragedy, for both to recognize not only their own feelings but also their partner’s feelings for them. There’s a sad beauty to their awakening as it arrives so late in their lives, and worse, it may have arrived too late.
Redford and Mirren share the screen early on and in a handful of flashbacks, and the pair show a relaxed chemistry together that aids in our belief about them being a couple. It’s their time apart that convinces all the more though as the fear and concern they wear on their faces is less about themselves and clearly for their loved one. Dialogue bolsters this, but it’s the quiet moments — Wayne holding photos of his wife in his bound hands, Eileen collapsing in the dark after delivering a ransom payment — that secures it in place and fuels the emotions of the third act.
Dafoe has the slightly tougher role of playing the kidnapper, an outsider to the couple at the center who have our heart, but he excels with a character whose sincerity makes his actions both unsettling and heartbreaking. There’s a sadness in him threatening to destroy others, and it’s to be both pitied and feared.
The film’s structure plays with time as it moves between the present and the past, and it’s fitting on a thematic level as well as the narrative. For the story, glimpses of the past work to infuse the present with more intense and satisfying emotion as character actions and reflections are given additional weight. The “now” hits harder because of what we know about the “then.” It fits the subtext too as at its core, the film is about people who may have realized truths too late.
The Clearing is a small thriller with a big heart. It was never going to catch on with general audiences, and genre fans seem to have passed it by in favor of bigger, darker, more exciting things. The cast alone makes it worth a watch though, and for those of us who enjoy cinema that delivers an occasional knife to the heart it’s a film that succeeds in finding its mark.
Follow along every Monday with Missed Connections — my appreciations of movies that failed to find an audience for one reason or another.
Buy The Clearing on DVD from Amazon.
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