You've heard of the vanity project, where someone with too much money and not enough shame makes a movie starring himself in which he acts nobly, is lit brilliantly, gets all the good lines and wins out in the end? Hmm, do the late films of Barbra Streisand come to mind?
The new Robert Redford film, "The Clearing," might be called an anti-vanity film. In it, a beautiful man allows, even encourages, himself to be photographed in the least flattering of light, so that the ravages time has worked upon his face are fully exposed. This spirit of honesty extends to the character himself, which, far from being the heroic Redford of yore, is shown to have been flawed, weak, inadequate and far from heroic.
Wayne Hayes (Redford) is a mega-successful Pittsburgh businessman, and like many of that ilk, he has the baggage and scars to prove it. The house is beautiful but empty of much emotion. His wife, loyal, earnest and steadfast Eileen (Helen Mirren), harbors agonies over an extended infidelity. His two children have memories similar to those of the children of many stars of one sort or another: a father who wasn't there physically or, when he was, wasn't there mentally, who justified doing what he loved and expressed himself as doing it for "their own good" and so forth.
So when Wayne is kidnapped for ransom, when his life is in grave danger, when the world suddenly turns primal and frightening, the responses evoked are somewhat ambivalent. That's the genius of the movie: It shows us how nothing is pure, how even crisis is undercut by bitter memory and awkward resentments.
The movie is structured like a postmodern thriller; it takes place in two time frames, during the actual commission of the crime and after its resolution, skillfully playing the time frames against each other for maximum suspense. But it's also an unusually low-budget film for such a big star, and that sometimes gets in the way. For example, to keep the cast small and the film on budget, the entire FBI is essentially represented by a single agent (played by Matt Craven), who comes to live in the house during the ordeal. On top of that, Eileen Hayes never hires a lawyer to advise her or a public relations firm to represent her, as someone at that income level almost certainly would. The director, Pieter Jan Brugge (a longtime producer directing for the first time), wants to keep things simple and in focus.
Most of the film turns on the relationship between Redford's Hayes and his kidnapper, Arnold Mack, played by Willem Dafoe. Mack is a nobody, a bitter loser (he lost a job of 17 years and now lives with his wife at her mother's; both of the women work, he does not). But the interesting thing is that he's always loved Wayne and has followed his career in the papers. He even met him once. So he not only wants Wayne's money; he also wants, pathetically, his friendship or at least his respect.
The longest passages -- and the most affecting -- dramatize these two men as they tramp through a Pennsylvania woods to the cabin where Arnold means to hold Wayne as the money is raised. It's a kind of tour de force for the two actors, who seize the opportunity to put aside Hollywood typology and go after more fundamental human truths. Wayne, something of a manipulator and negotiator, is confident he can outtalk and outthink this feral little man so bent on getting a certain thing from the world. Dafoe's driven Arnold Mack is certainly a vivid creation: He wants to be loved, but he wants the money, too. That he can demand contradictory responses from his victim is certainly evidence of his madness, but at the same time it's so pathetically squalid and self-delusional it seems almost poignant.
I'm glad the movie didn't go all Tinseltown at the end. It stays in character, small, human, bitter and sad.
The Clearing (91 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for adult themes.