Captive-ating Redford: Wait to see it on video
He's Robert Redford and you're not. That simple fact is enough to bug the crap out of some people.
In The Clearing Redford is Wayne Hughes, and that bugs the crap out of at least one person: Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe). One morning Arnold kidnaps the self-made multi-millionaire at gunpoint outside his Pittsburgh mansion.
While the film begins by showing each man starting his day, they soon link up to form one of two tracks we'll follow. They spend the day walking through a forest. Arnold says he's working for a group of people and his job is to deliver Wayne to them.
The other track spans several weeks as Wayne's wife Eileen (Helen Mirren) worries when he doesn't come home for dinner, reports him missing and gets faster results than you or I would. Soon an FBI crew led by Agent Fuller (Matt Craven) moves into her house, monitoring phone calls and snooping through anything that might provide a clue or a subplot.
Meanwhile, back in the forest, Wayne is playing both roles in a game of Good Cop/Bad Cop in an effort to get Arnold off his guard. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether he's being genuine, trying to psych out his adversary, or both. He learns that Arnold, who's been unemployed for eight years, lives in "a household of disappointed people" and hopes to make enough from this kidnapping to feel like a man again and give his wife a good life.
Arnold already knows all there is to know about Wayne. He's done his homework and sometimes sounds like James Lipton as he reveals obscure details of his captive's life.
Back home Eileen is joined by their grown children, Jill (Melissa Sagemiller) and Tim (Alessandro Nivola), and Tim's wife and son. The kidnappers play a waiting game, holding out for a long time (we're never sure exactly how long) before making ransom demands.
The Clearing is at least as much a character study as a suspense drama. Wayne and Eileen learn things about themselves and each other during a time of crisis as we learn about both of them and Arnold. It's a great acting showcase for the three leads, especially Redford, who may never have been better. Mirren acts so upper-class one hardly notices she's affecting an American accent, but she's dead-on at all times. Dafoe is more subdued than usual but almost manages to arouse sympathy for his character.
Some scenes, especially the ransom payment, manage to work up suspense, but the story seems to be moving toward a conclusion so inevitable only a miracle or a screenwriter's sneaky twist can avert it.
Dutch-born director Pieter Jan Brugge, who conceived the story based on real events in the Netherlands, does a fine job, but the low-key movie never becomes as compelling as it should be. It will probably play better on video where expectations aren't the same as they are in a theater.