THERE'S nothing like a good kidnapping. In the movies, I mean. Not the real kind that leaves you sick to your stomach and hating those moral cowards in the face masks, holding up yesterday's newspaper next to their victim's head and toting guns and divisive slogans. Not the kind we watch from Baghdad in these horrible times, not the kind we used to watch from Beirut.
No, the fictional kind, where you still get the sickening feeling but you're protected. It's not real. So it's safer, more romantic, in a way. The mysteries are deeper, because these apprehensions are the work of scriptwriters not terrorists. The motivation of the perpetrator will be more interesting. And you know, sooner or later, the movie will become a moral trial about the victim.
Almost always, the victim deserves to be kidnapped, at least in the movie's moral lens. He (and usually it's a man) should have paid more attention to his family. He was too greedy. He didn't think about the little people. He was foolish in some way. He was arrogant. He didn't appreciate life. There's always something immoral buried inside him; and it takes this kind of upheaval for it to emerge. A new understanding occurs between kidnapper and captive. We slowly change our assessments about which one to hate and which to like. These are some of the rules, and we watch kidnapping movies semiconsciously aware of them.
"The Clearing," the debut feature of longtime-producer-turned-director Pieter Jan Brugge, does a workmanlike job of evoking these feelings and sensations. If only he did more.
Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) has built himself a small American empire: a fine home in a wealthy Pittsburgh suburb with his wife, Eileen (Helen Mirren). He owns a highly successful company and has total control over his life. Or so it would seem. He's distracted, a little distanced, as he goes through the world. He's not appreciating his life as he should. But he will, thanks to a stranger (Willem Dafoe), who has been stalking him lately, watching his schedule.
When the expected happens, Eileen and her grown children (Alessandro Nivola and Melissa Sagemiller) endure emotional upheaval as they wait for news of Wayne. Eileen has to answer disturbingly intimate questions about her husband to FBI agent Ray Fuller (Matt Craven), a thin-lipped man who uncovers a few too many inconvenient revelations about Wayne. Fuller seems to become more a part of the problem than the solution, and eventually Eileen finds herself focusing on her love for her husband more than on hope of his return.
Like Wayne, we get to learn more about the kidnapper. His name is Arnold Mack. He wears a fake mustache. He seems agitated, desperate. After he apprehends Wayne, he ties his hands and leads him through dense woods. Their destination, Arnold tells Wayne, is a cabin from which Arnold's associates will take over. But until then, Wayne is going to have to reckon with Arnold. It turns out they have much to talk about and settle.
Brugge and debut screenwriter Justin Haythe know how to build suspense, by avoiding it. The apprehension happens in broad daylight. Arnold is surprisingly nice about the whole thing. And Wayne has a certain take-charge personality that relaxes Arnold and us. We think things might go well, but we know this is probably false security.
Redford's performance is strong and assured. He projects the right balance of confidence and moral malaise. But neither he nor the filmmakers justify our initial investment in the movie. We are lured into the woods brimming with expectations, but ultimately, we find ourselves looking for the wrong sort of clearing: a way out.
THE CLEARING (R, 91 minutes) -- Contains some obscenity. Area theaters.