The Clearing (review)

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The cast is to die for: Robert Redford (Spy Game) as a retired executive, and Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man 2) as the blue-collar schmoe who kidnaps him for ransom; Helen Mirren (Calendar Girls) as the executive’s wife left to fend with FBI agents invading the house, and Alessandro Nivola (Laurel Canyon) as the grown son and new father who’s discovering a new concept of “family” in the wake of the tragedy. The parallel structure of Justin Haythe’s script is clever and challenging — those on the homefront agonize for days waiting for news, while the kidnapping itself plays out over the course of mere hours — building palpable suspense while simultaneously allowing Redford and Mirren, who barely appear onscreen together, to create an unsentimental but poignant portrait of a rocky marriage that’s survived decades. And director Pieter Jan Brugge (in his debut; he produced The Insider) turns the woods in which much of the story unfolds sinister in its lushness. But it all falls apart at the last minute, the script winding down into a woefully underwritten ending that leaves this veteran cast scrambling for purchase. And no amount of appreciation for the performances — as smart and as sharp as they can be — can make up for the contradictions of Dafoe’s reluctant criminal. We’re left with no understanding of him, the primary force behind everything here, and so we never understand why any of them are facing this trial in the first place.

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