It's one of the oldest stories in cinema, and possibly in the history of storytelling: A man is kidnapped by a baddie wielding a deadly weapon. His family waits at home to hear word while law-enforcement types try to figure out what's going on. A plan is developed to deal with the situation, but then something unexpected happens that screws things up.
The Clearing is the latest film to use that template, and, as such, it could easily have been a crushing bore. Certainly if a big studio (as opposed to a big studio's "art house" subsidiary -- Fox Searchlight, in this instance) were making it, they'd probably cast it with either vacuous young himbos like Paul Walker or lazy, overpaid "names" like John Travolta and Ashley Judd. But the makers of The Clearing could apparently not care less about capturing the youth market, so they've actually gone with veteran actors who know their stuff: Robert Redford, Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe (a youngster by comparison, perhaps). Another key detail of note is that, unlike many kidnap/ransom films, the focus is not on the cops, who are largely inefficient and absent from this story.
So when car-rental company mogul Wayne Hayes (Redford) disappears one day, there are no big pyrotechnics, no car chase as the captor gets away, just a car found abandoned in a parking structure and no ransom demand of any kind. Knowing nothing, the family can do little but sit around as their despair gradually increases and they wait in vain for the FBI to turn anything up.
Then, in a parallel story line, we see what happened to Wayne. Taken to the forest by an armed assailant (Dafoe), he's on an extended forced hike. Dafoe's Arnold Mack is a former co-worker of Hayes's whose life has disintegrated since he was laid off, but he doesn't blame Hayes for that. In fact, despite his obsessive knowledge of all things Wayne Hayes, he claims to bear his captive no ill will at all; he's merely working for hire, taking Hayes to a cabin where the real kidnappers will tell him just exactly what they want with him.
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Because of the way the scenes of Wayne and Arnold are intercut with those of the family at home, it's natural to assume that both events are happening concurrently, and director Pieter Jan Brugge (a former producer of films such as The Pelican Brief and The Insider) knows it. But he also establishes early on, even in the very first kidnapping scene, that he's not necessarily telling his story in a linear order, and about halfway through the film, the sharp-eyed viewer will note that what we're seeing at the Hayes homestead is actually happening after the events unfolding in the forest. The moment you realize this, the tension increases, because for all we know, by the time the ransom demand finally comes in, Wayne may already be in the hands of Arnold's unknown bosses.
Instinctively, the Wayne-Arnold thread is more compelling to watch, because Arnold is withholding key information, plus he has a gun. By cutting back to the family on a regular basis, though, Brugge makes us feel their impatience and frustration, too. He's aided greatly in this by the casting of Mirren as Mrs. Hayes; she's the take-charge woman of the house who finds herself utterly powerless for the first time, and the slow buildup to the moment at which she finally tries to get that power back is easy to miss if one pays attention only to the menfolk in the forest.
The dynamic between those menfolk goes against expectations, in part because movie audiences are usually inclined to sympathize with the underdog. Numerous films, from The Negotiator to One Hour Photo, have featured a lead character who loses his job and takes the law (and, often, a gun) into his own hands to make things right. In The Clearing, Arnold is that character, yet Wayne, a conservative businessman who comes by his wealth honestly and chastises Arnold for taking shortcuts, is the protagonist. Perhaps this is because he seems to be the more proactive of the two: Arnold constantly tells us he's following orders, while it gradually becomes clear that Wayne is trying to emotionally manipulate him into letting down his guard.
Speaking of One Hour Photo: The stylistic parallels between that film and The Clearing are interesting to note, which may be a good indicator of the personal tastes of the buyers at Fox Searchlight. Both feature somewhat parallel stories, sparse sets, subdued acting by people often known for hamming it up (Robin Williams and Dafoe), an eerily minimalist score that you barely notice (here by Craig Armstrong, whose last credit was Love Actually), and an ending that raises more questions than it answers. It's a welcome approach to material that could easily be overdone, and if the studio feels like putting out a few more films in this vein, more power to it.