* * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2004 at Loews Harvard Square #4 (first-run)
When The Clearing was shot in late 2002, the television program Without A Trace was just coming on the air. Whether or not its depiction of how the FBI tracks missing persons is accurate, it became a hit and put the image of a ticking clock and a meticulously tracked timeline into the general consciousness. That The Clearing lacks such things would have seemed odd then, but today's crime fans will pick up on it right away.
There's an argument that this isn't really a crime movie, but a story about the relationship between Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) and his wife Eileen (Helen Mirren), which is intended to be brought into sharp focus by how they react to Wayne's kidnapping and the subsequent investigation. Unfortunately, we get very few scenes with Wayne and Eileen together, and Eileen's feelings are unclear. She seems rather unperturbed, at one point going shopping for a birthday present for their grandson, at others taking a break to go swimming in her pool. She is quite good when her reserve cracks the slightest bit, but there is little tension in most scenes; it's enough to make us wonder if she and Wayne's abductor Arnold (Willem Defoe) are in cahoots.
The performances are pretty good. Almost all are understated; in addition to the people mentioned, there's Alessandro Nivola and Melissa Sagemiller as the Hayes' grown children. I like Sagemiller's warmth and the little-girl fear that shows on her face, along with how Nivola occasional seems to wonder if anyone else is worked up about this. Matt Craven exudes professional calm as the FBI agent in charge of the investigation.
They're not given much to work with, though. Both writer Justin Haythe and director Pieter Jan Brugge appear to be first-timers, and the personality they describe for Wayne in the dialogue doesn't quite seem to match the one Redford gives the character. The biggest issue is the structure of the script. The two plot threads (Eileen/FBI and Wayne/Arnold) are shown in parallel fashion, but the attentive audience member will soon recognize the limits to just how parallel they can be. At that point, the play-out becomes fairly obvious.
It's a curious case of the two perspectives weakening each other. There's a good story to be told about a man and his kidnapper, or about a wife waiting for news about her kidnapped husband, but together they're less than the sum of their parts.