Abduction thrillers generate much of their appeal (and, let’s admit it, schadenfreude) by observing their typically complacent, upper-crust characters deteriorate under the weight of their own emotional uncertainty. While The Clearing wastes no time establishing its victims’ patrician status—wealthy businessman Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford) is living out his golden years with society wife Eileen (Helen Mirren) in a tony Pittsburgh suburb—the movie avoids the usual screw-tightening antics in favor of a quietly subversive scenario: What if your spouse was kidnapped and your life pretty much stayed the same? To be sure, the disappearance of Redford’s executive initiates a burst of forensic hubbub (FBI surveillance, ransom negotiations), but for the most part, the movie doesn’t break a sweat, thanks largely to Mirren’s suburban doyenne, a preternaturally calm homemaker who won’t let a missing husband stop her from hosting dinner guests or organizing a birthday celebration.
Graceful under pressure, the Hayeses are whiteness-studies specimens of the most resilient order. Stress leaves no visible mark on them, nor does the threat of death, as Wayne’s kidnapper (Willem Dafoe) soon learns. Trekking through the forest to an unspecified rendezvous, captor and captive exchange polite conversation and even divulge their life stories. Dafoe’s corporate drone was once an employee at Wayne’s company, and the two had lunch together years ago, a fact that Wayne can’t recall. They share lunch again—this time, a picnic spread of sandwiches and Thermos coffee—but the power dynamic has reversed. That Wayne is a self-made millionaire only complicates matters with his downwardly mobile captor, whose grievances increasingly offend Wayne’s sense of entrepreneurial initiative. Back home, Eileen has taken in her grown children as well as a team of feds whom she entertains with dinner and fine wine. Shot by cinematographer Denis Lenoir as a series of House & Garden–like tableaux, her life betrays hardly a sign of disruption, not least when she submits to a press photo-op, practically daring the cameras to find a blemish on her impeccable household.
Alternating between the home front and the woods, director Pieter Jan Brugge creates a deceptively straightforward structure whose true chronology reveals itself in barely perceptible increments. Such a seamless merging of disparate time frames gives the movie a succinct elegance, a virtue that can also be found in the title: The Clearing literally refers to a pivotal location in Wayne’s sylvan journey, but it also reads as ironic commentary on Eileen’s quotidian existence. Could her work-free (now husband-free) life be any sparser? With the emotional reins of the movie firmly in her grasp, Mirren never condescends to her character, investing her with an unshakable poise that unnerves even as it reassures those around her. (The detached efficiency with which she confronts her husband’s mistress recalls Mirren’s equally intimidating Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison.) Kidnapping movies invariably crescendo to a fever pitch of procedural complexity. At a terse 91 minutes, The Clearing offers the reverse, a movie that only grows more conceptually minimal as the clock ticks down. The bizarrely happy conclusion may seem incongruous, but given the demographic of the characters, anything less would be considered bad manners.