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Clearing the Past

Jul 17, 2004
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Watching three seasoned professionals at work.

Cons:Kidnapping stories always have a coin-toss ending.

The Bottom Line: Good popcorn entertainment, for the older crowd.


No matter how we otherwise live our lives, most of us—those of us who have reached middle-age at least—wake up in much the same way as everyone else in the morning. We reluctantly, and creakily, get out of bed, splash water on our faces, rush our way through a bowl of cereal and encounter our first pique of the day when we discover that the damned newspaper isn’t where it’s supposed to be…something like that. The rest of the morning may involve going to work or carrying out an elaborate scheme to kidnap some wealthy person for the ransom. Or, we may spend the rest of the day thinking about how we have robbed our spouse of the knowledge that we truly needed and loved them.

Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) is a man who made it big in the car rental business; enough so to have worried Hertz and Avis at one time. But he has sold his business and now consults on the side. His dream for the future—or so he says—is to spend as much time with his wife Eileen (Helen Mirren) and his two grown children, and one token grandkid, as he can. But this isn’t really the whole truth. He also is spending some of his quality time with the mistress with whom his wife had imagined that he had broken it off with years ago, when she had found out about them.

But it wasn’t something that Eileen knew about until an FBI agent told her that soon after Wayne had been kidnapped. It appears there are other things about Wayne that she didn’t know, not until she heard it from the mouths of strangers.

Director/co-writer Pieter Jan Brugge has given us a twist on an old formula that goes beyond the usual restrained panic that encumbers most kidnapping stories. We get to know not only the kidnapper, Arnold (Willem Dafoe), but his victim Wayne as well. No two men could be any more different than these two. Arnold spent his entire career working his way up to lower-management; then got caught up in the crunch when the economy sagged and his company downsized him…Wayne’s company. Wayne attempts to reason with the angry and confused Arnold, but it’s not in his personality makeup to either console or apologize. What Wayne does spend a great deal of his time doing is reflecting upon what it is that he could have done differently, were he able to amend the past. That is certainly a question that would interest Eileen as well.

What distinguishes “The Clearing” from the rest of the kidnap fold is that instead of the typical greedy, malevolent type of miscreant who usually enacts a kidnapping, Dafoe’s Arnold is a flesh-and-blood human who is more victim of his own limited abilities and economic circumstances than he is hardened criminal. Arnold and his partners are out for the money, without a doubt, but in Arnold’s case it may be more about exacting revenge than it is about the money.

But it is the character of Mirren’s Eileen who gives this story the continuity it needs. As Wayne and Arnold’s day-long drama is played out, we see Eileen enduring days of having federal agents and her own grown children constantly underfoot. This is not the strong and determined Mirren of Jane Tennison fame, but a gracious yet helpless woman who has to deal not only with the terrifying thought of her husband’s possible death, but also with the public humiliation of her husband’s infidelity for all the world, especially her family, to see.

This film provides good work for three actors who have settled into their comfortable niches in the industry. Redford’s presence and stature lend his Wayne an edge of knowing ruthlessness in the way in which he deals with the world. Mirren’s poise and range provides the adhesive that holds this story together, and she spends more time on screen, I believe, than Redford does. Dafoe has spent a career playing the wounded everyman, and his Arnold is that classically simple character who has put things into motion that he is powerless to stop.

Though they have few scenes together, both Redford and Mirren possess that certain screen chemistry that allows them to work comfortably with each other. It is easy to see them as the couple whose marriage stands like a stately mansion built of solid material all the while battling termites in the basement. Director Brugge has given us a better-than-average study not of the panic that usually surrounds most movie kidnappings where the victim is young and we mourn for the life they may never be able to live. But for a life that has been lived, and for the mistakes, and triumphs, that accompany that story. This makes it much easier for us to sit back and enjoy the show.


Recommend this product? Yes


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In its chilling opener, THE CLEARING paints a classic portrait of rich man vs. poor man, showing the morning routines of two very similar characters. ...
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