Prayer Focus
Movie Review

The Clearing

MPAA Rating: R-Rating (MPAA) for brief strong language

Reviewed by: Chris Monroe

Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
1 hr. 31 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
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Copyright, Fox Searchlight Pictures

Relationship issues
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Featuring: Robert Redford, Willem Dafoe, Helen Mirren, Alessandro Nivola, Matt Craven
Director: Pieter Jan Brugge
Writer: Justin Haythe
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

A “clearing” isn’t a comfortable, secluded area of the woods where we go to have a picnic—at least not in this film. “The Clearing” refers to the idea of payment or reimbursement, and highlights the concept that “everybody suffers.” This film clearly carries this theme, but does not do so without simultaneously offering us something traditionally inspirational.

One simple weekday morning in Pennsylvania, Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe) abducts Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) on his way to work, and takes him for a hike through the woods. While Wayne’s wife, Eileen (Helen Mirren), along with his family and detectives, try to discover where her husband is, the events of Wayne and Arnold’s trek to the “cabin at the clearing” is told parallel to it. While the present and past unfold for us, the suspense keeps us highly involved until we—as well as the family—realize the outcome of the drama.

This is a very smart, wryly mysterious story that provides us with something engagingly straightforward. It is, however, rated R, specifically for moments of foul language, including the “f” word and using God’s name in vain. There is also a moment of violence, but it is fairly quick, and not exaggerated. Beyond these things, some of the subject matter is more adult as characters discuss an illicit extramarital affair.

While the story has its moments of action and is quite suspenseful, ultimately, this is a character driven drama. Wayne is a successful, wealthy businessman who is honored and respected by everyone he knows. He is happily married, and has two grown kids, as well as one grandchild. He is not without his faults, however. The issue of the affair he has had with a woman from his company comes up repeatedly, and plays into our suspicions regarding the plot.

Contrastingly, Arnold is an American male, just like Wayne, but has not had life so good. He, too, is married, but feels slighted by life, partly due to being unemployed and living uncomfortably with his father-in-law in a lower income part of town. He has also known Wayne because they once worked for the same company for a short time. It was then that Arnold first met Wayne, and was told by others “He’s the guy to watch,” meaning that Wayne was successful and had it all together. But the disparity between these two contemporary men ultimately leads to the impasse we see here.

Since this piece is so character-driven, the actors really have opportunities to enrich the material they’ve been given. The best moments for me were the ones so subtlety expressed by Helen Mirren, who plays Wayne’s wife. So concentrated and absorbed in what is going on, she is fascinating to watch. She made me feel pity for her, as well as entertain the idea of her as a suspect. Dafoe was extraordinarily acute in the details of portraying Arnold, and Redford gives us an honest, courageous performance.

This was a movie that stuck with me long after I saw it, and made me want to keep analyzing it. While the story is simple and straightforward, it was easy to consider it as a kind of metaphor as well. After the viewing, but not during, I realized some parallels between the ideas in this story and the events of September 11, 2001. There is more of an explanation of this idea besides the centerpiece of terrorism, but it is too long to go into here. I must also say that this isn’t necessarily the intent of screenwriter Justin Haythe or first time director Peter Jan Brugge, but simply one interpretation that I walked away with.

Very well produced and overall very clean and entertaining, this film isn’t a disappointment. And as difficult as some of the drama is, the overall goal is to give us something affirming by the end.

Violence: Moderate / Profanity: Moderate / Sex/Nudity: None

Here’s what the distributor says about their film: “Wayne (Robert Redford) and Eileen (Helen Mirren) Hayes live the American Dream. Together they’ve raised two children and struggled to build a successful business from the ground up. But there have been sacrifices along the way. When Wayne is kidnapped by an ordinary man, Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe), and held for ransom in a remote forest, the couple’s world is turned inside out. Eileen finds her home full of FBI Agents, their life under scrutiny.

While Wayne is engaged in the negotiation of his lifetime, Eileen works frantically with the FBI to secure his release. The terrifying ordeal causes Wayne and Eileen to reassess their marriage and come to a deeper sense of their commitment to each other. With each passing hour, the need and desire for Wayne to return home safely becomes ever more urgent.”

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Neutral—This film was a good movie with the exception of brief foul language. The family unit was maintained and dealt constructively with the affair that the father engaged in years before. I do not want to give the ending away for anyone interested in seeing it, suffice to say, it was not exciting or surprising. I found it rather lame. The ending actually ruined a good story.
My Ratings: [Average/2½]
Jim Vanden Heuvel, age 37
Movie Critics
…the events in a late scene are so unexpected and yet so logical that we are nodding with agreement as we react with surprise… [3 stars]
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
…Although Redford can never be downright awful, he has settled into a rut… “The Clearing” is just an OK thriller, full of standard scenarios and cookie-cutter characters…
Allison Benedikt, Chicago Tribune
…fail to satisfactorily pull off either the thriller or the marital deconstruction…
Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter
…this particular pill is an even more bitter one to swallow when first-rate talents set out to create a subtle, considered, mainstream narrative film and wind up falling flat on their faces…
Glenn Kenny, Premiere Magazine
…Well-mannered movie aims to be a thriller and a marital deconstruction, but doesn’t quite manage to work on either level…
Glenn Whipp, LA Daily Times