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Into the Woods: Desperate kidnapper Willem Dafoe leads tycoon Robert Redford toward 'The Clearing.'


Class-war drama 'The Clearing' asks, Who wants to kidnap a millionaire?

By Richard von Busack

IT'S SUCH A THRILL to see a movie about the class war. Even if The Clearing—a putative thriller—goes wishy-washy to an extreme that would dismay Charlie Brown himself, at least it confesses to trouble afoot. When a mainstream movie even mentions discontent between the classes, that movie automatically becomes as provocative as a topless scene once was. Here, the dispute between the haves and have-nots is staged between an unemployed kidnapper, Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe), and a Pittsburgh tycoon, Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford). Long ago, Hayes signed the papers that sold his rental-car company, leading to layoffs galore.

First-time director Pieter Jan Brugge (a longtime producer) shifts, disorientingly, even clumsily, back and forth in time, cutting between the snatching of the executive from the stone gates of his suburban Pittsburgh estate to scenes of the victim and the kidnapper trudging across the countryside. Wayne's wife, Eileen (Helen Mirren), a reserved woman given to endless laps in a frigid swimming pool, comes to terms with her bitter feelings about her husband—she was betrayed by his affair with a co-worker a few years before. Her estranged family reunites to wait for news. An FBI agent, Fuller (Matt Craven, cast against the grain), invades Eileen's private life, which forces her to confront her husband's mistress. (This mistress adjusted to being fired from her job after sleeping with his boss rather well—no lawsuits or anything.) Meanwhile, kidnapper and victim head ever deeper into the woods, and unfold themselves to one another, as if this were a weekend retreat instead of a crime.

The Clearing is hushed and serious—I don't think a voice gets raised in the movie for the entire first hour. Before the dullness sets in, the artistic depletion of it all looks attractive, and certainly Dafoe's intensity keeps the movie alive. Since the aged Redford looks so much like Donald Trump, it's a pleasure to watch him get roughed up and ordered around at gunpoint.

The title refers to an open spot in a forest (keeper and captive slog toward a cabin where the millionaire is to be held for ransom). But it also means a clearing of heads. Benumbed by his wealth, Wayne is too preoccupied with his work to notice the family around him. He's forgotten his own roots, how poor he was before his rise to the top. Arnold, with his dreams of easy money, doesn't realize that he could have woven happiness out of what he describes as "a household of disappointed people": a too-small row house crowded with him, his exhausted wife and his hard-of-hearing dad, who watches TV too loud in the living room all night long.

Plotwise, this isn't too far from the movie Preston Sturges' Sullivan wanted to release in Sullivan's Travels. As in Sullivan's opus, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, figures representing "Labor" and "Capital" fight it out to the death. Finally, the struggle means destruction for both of them. Why can't labor and capital get along? The Clearing asks. And if it has to ask, maybe all involved should go see The Corporation.

The Clearing (R; 91 min.), directed by Pieter Jan Brugge, written by Justin Haythe and Brugge, photographed by Denis Lenoir and starring Robert Redford and Willem Dafoe, opens Friday.

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From the June 30-July 6, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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