This dud kidnapping drama stages itself on two clumsily intertwined fronts: in one, car rental titan Wayne (Robert Redford) stumbles through the Pennsylvania woods with his anxiously disgruntled abductor, Arnold (Willem Dafoe), while in the other, Wayne’s plastic-fantastic wife Eileen (Mirren, uncharacteristically obvious) puts on a brave face back at the deluxe estate. The film’s main fallacy is its ignorance of corporate menace in favor of nauseating exposition romanticizing the opulent rewards of lucky capitalists like Wayne. Mirren even looks like the succubus wife of Enron demon Kenneth Lay, who wept about losing her country club membership as the savings of the company’s shareholders burned, but first-time (and hopefully last-time) director Pieter Jan Brugge lacks the wit or forethought to sketch a commentary. Shameless techniques are employed to blur the surface happiness of Wayne’s life (using tools like a former mistress and a rocky business portfolio), but whenever he pleads to know why he has been pinched, his captor obsessively defers to the invisible pack of thuggish colleagues in a nearby cabin—really just the screenplay’s method of skirting an uncomfortable issue with superficiality.
What might have been a Death and the Maiden-style waltz through each of the three main character’s guilt, motivation, and inner tumult is impossible here. Banality persists: Wayne and Eileen are basically innocents and Arnold (who Dafoe cannot help but imbue with his famous hangdog humanity) is a bungling loser who has disrupted their blond lives simply for a heap of ransom money. The script is too lazy to sustain the activities of three people, so despite a short running time, toxic secondary characters invade the plot. Matt Craven, as the F.B.I. agent who camps in Eileen’s house, is much less interesting than the seemingly mute black woman who evidently plays his assistant. Meanwhile, the only thing worse than Melissa Sagemiller as Wayne and Eileen’s whimpering daughter is Alessandro Nivola as their petulant son; staring at the floor would be preferable during the few scenes when the normally resourceful actor is called upon to emote.
Brugge, a prolific producer of fare such as Glory and The Insider, clearly relates to the earned elitism of Wayne and Eileen more than the working class grayness of Arnold, but The Clearing needed the firm hand of a Hollywood insubordinate, not a sycophant. At one time, that hand might have been Redford’s, but the actor has become a shed lizard’s skin of his former self. (The irony of this being the Sundance founder’s first role in an independently-financed film is that, though it’s being advertised as summer counter programming, The Clearing is more of the same indie garbage.) In his first scene, Redford modestly acknowledges the labor of just getting one’s feet on the floor, but the performance rapidly dissolves in a serious of lordly tics and affected line readings. Audiences should not be surprised when, in a scene where he is offered his choice of sandwiches, Redford blurts out bountifully, “Ham!”