Non-linear storytelling can, indeed, enrich a motion picture's dramatic potency, but the true test of whether such a film works is imaging how it would play out if put into chronological order. Following this guideline, the limp plot threads in "The Clearing" alarmingly start to unravel. As distinguished and able as performers Helen Mirren (1999's "Teaching Mrs. Tingle
"), Robert Redford (2001's "Spy Game
"), and Willem Dafoe (2002's "Spider-Man
") are, they cannot save a premise as fundamentally mundane as the one they have been dealt here.
On the surface, Wayne (Robert Redford) and Eileen Hayes (Helen Mirren) are the perfect picture of a content, upper-class Ohio existence. Fate deals them a sudden blow when Wayne is kidnapped by Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe), a disgruntled former employee who believes Wayne's fortune is the answer to all of his problems. As Arnold leads Wayne around a nearby Ohio forest, headed for a hideaway and a group of coconspirators who may or may not exist, a rattled Eileen and grown children Tim (Alessandro Nivola) and Jill (Melissa Sagemiller) must deal with the ransom demands. The experience digs up an affair Wayne once had with Louise (Wendy Crewson), and the realization from Eileen that things for she and her husband were never as ideal as she wanted to believe they were.
Directed by debuting filmmaker Pieter Jan Brugge and written by Justin Haythe, "The Clearing" simultaneously drifts into two separate timelines in a failed attempt to hide the story's ill-advised lack of originality. So simple is the premise, and so emotionally inert is its trajectory, that viewers, by default, may begin to think that more is going on than meets the eye. Regrettably, nothing more is going on at all, and the clumsy wrap-up exposes just how unproductive the experience of watching the film has been. Thriller elements slide uncomfortably into the proceedings twice, including a chase through a rain-soaked forest, but they are a failed act of desperation to spice things up.
Director Pieter Jan Brugge, who creates a stark and moody enough atmosphere with cinematographer Denis Lenoir, wants the drama's core to be the bumpy relationship between middle-aged couple Wayne and Eileen, with both parties coming to terms with their marriage even as they are torn from each other. The details and emotions of their relationship, however, are never amicably established in the first place, making it difficult to sympathize with their plight. As circumstances grow increasingly dire, viewers are supposed to be involved and care about what happens, but they simply aren't because they don't really know either of these characters. The same goes for Wayne and Eileen's children, Tim and Jill, whose bond with their father is only fleetingly touched upon.
As mentioned, Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, and Willem Dafoe make up an exceptional ensemble, each one in a struggle to ground and humanize thankless roles. Of the three, Mirren comes off best as Eileen, a strong-willed woman who discovers her footing on her life and marriage aren't as solid as she had led herself to think. Supporting work from Alessandro Nivola (2001's "Jurassic Park III
"), Melissa Sagemiller (2002's "Sorority Boys
"), and Wendy Crewson (2002's "The Santa Clause 2
") is decent, but they are handed the short thrift in a one-dimensional screenplay.
The best thing to be said about "The Clearing" is that it holds your attention for its 95 minutes, even extracting a certain level of suspense in its third act, but it is all for very little. When the two plot strands arrive at their culmination, the picture collapses with nothing to grab onto but a half-hearted catharsis. "The Clearing" strives to be more than just a predictable, by-the-numbers kidnapping drama, but that, ultimately, is all that it ends up being.