Has the kidnapping genre run its course? Was there ever really a course to run? How many different approaches can there be to a simple snatch-and-grab job? There’s the kidnapper’s point-of-view, the victim’s and the family’s (if there is one.) Why is the crime perpetuated? Is the antagonist a psychopath or is the protagonist just being taught a lesson? Are our emotions to be stirred with the potential murdering of a child or is someone just trying to take Bette Midler off our hands? I don’t know if we needed another kidnapping drama to stir up any of these questions again.In this film version of the ransom drop series, Robert Redford is successful executive Wayne Hayes. He’s got the house in the country with the in-ground pool and wife Eileen (Helen Mirren) whose job is to remind him to be home on time for dinner guests. This night Wayne doesn’t come home. As if he somehow knew this day was doomed, he took one final long glance at her before being whisked away on a plot by former employee, Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe).
The Hayes family is all called back to the homestead when news of their father hits. Son Tim (Alessandro Nivola) and daughter Jill (Melissa Sagemiller) are here for their mother in a time when she seems to be the strongest. FBI agent Fuller (Matt Craven) and his inconsequential partner (Loretta Devine) show up to respond to the demands of Arnold and explain the laws of kidnap dramas to the family.
Arnold is hardly a criminal mastermind but he’s got the basics down. One can imagine him watching a bunch of kidnapping films to get his ideas. He’s not unlike Judge Reinhold in Ruthless People, getting professionally screwed over by a higher power (Wayne) in the business world. He’s also not without compassion, engaging Wayne in conversation and offering him sandwiches, probably because he’s not the mastermind behind the plan at all. According to him, he’s just a delivery boy bringing Wayne to a cabin in the woods where those with the real beef await.
The Clearing is not so much a mystery as it is a rather dry drama about a family coming to grips with a loss of time. Wayne certainly regrets not being there enough for his children, who have their wounds over it; albeit a bit late in life with that realization. But they, like Eileen are aware that their position in lives would not be the same without what Wayne provided for them. When Eileen discovers a secret from Wayne’s past (one that she already suspected) she’s come to term with the love for her husband to dismiss it as an acceptable bump in the road.
It’s Mirren’s performance that anchors the film away from the non-complexities of the abduction angle. As an aging woman who has had it good for so long, Mirren allows her character to silently discover how good it actually was and how much better it could have been. Dafoe plays villains like nobody’s business and here he’s menacing but in a wonderfully dorky kind of way that matches up great with Redford, who may have officially run out of performances. Not in a bad way, but he’s a star and a charming one to boot, so there isn’t much to take away from a characterization like Wayne other than a few moments of regret and someone we want to see make it.Without the performances, this screenplay by first-timer Justin Haythe is as routine and uninteresting as they come. Rich guy gets kidnapped and argues class distinction with napper while his family prepares for the ransom drop. It doesn’t really have twists, rather misdirection that has us wondering if the whole point of the woods scenes were even necessary. This is Mirren’s story and it should have stuck with her. At least then we would have had a fresh point of view on the kidnapping genre. Kinda. (NOTE: This was labeled as a “work-in-progress” at Sundance 2004. The film seemed relatively complete save for the “Road to Perdition” score which accompanied it.)
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Los Angeles Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.