If a big studio (as opposed to a big studio's "art house" subsidiary, Fox Searchlight in this instance) were making The Clearing, the latest film to use that template, the producers probably would cast it with either vacuous young himbos such as Paul Walker or lazy, overpaid "names" like John Travolta and Ashley Judd. But the makers of The Clearing apparently couldn't care less about capturing the youth market; instead, they've gone with veteran actors who know their stuff: Robert Redford, Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe.
When car-rental company mogul Wayne Hayes (Redford) disappears one day, there are no big pyrotechnics, no car chase as the captor gets away. The car is found abandoned in a parking structure, and no ransom demand is delivered. Knowing nothing, the family can do little but sit around waiting in vain for the FBI to turn up a lead, and its despair gradually increases.
Then, in a parallel story line, we see what happened to Wayne. Taken to a forest by an armed assailant (Dafoe), he's on an extended, forced hike. Dafoe's Arnold Mack is a former coworker of Hayes' whose life has disintegrated since he was laid off, but he doesn't blame Hayes for that. In fact, despite his obsessive knowledge of all things Wayne Hayes, he claims to bear his captive no ill will; he's merely working for hire, taking Hayes to a cabin where the real kidnappers will tell him what they want with him.
Because of the way the scenes of Wayne and Arnold are intercut with those of the family at home, it's natural to assume that both events are happening concurrently, and director Pieter Jan Brugge knows it. But he also establishes early on that he's not necessarily telling his story linearly, and about halfway through the film, the sharp-eyed viewer will note that what we're seeing at the Hayes homestead is actually happening after the events unfolding in the forest. The moment we realize this, the tension increases.
The Wayne-Arnold thread is more compelling to watch -- Arnold is withholding key information, and he has a gun. By cutting back to the family, though, Brugge makes us feel their impatience and frustration. He's aided greatly in this by the casting of Mirren as Mrs. Hayes, the take-charge woman of the house who finds herself utterly powerless for the first time. The slow buildup to the moment when she finally tries to get that power back is easy to miss if one only pays attention only to the men in the forest.
The dynamic between the men goes against expectations, in part because movie audiences are usually inclined to sympathize with the underdog. Numerous films, from The Negotiator to One Hour Photo, have featured a lead character who loses his job and takes the law (and, often, a gun) into his own hands. In The Clearing, Arnold is that character, yet Wayne, a conservative businessman who comes by his wealth honestly and chastises Arnold for taking shortcuts, is the protagonist. Arnold constantly tells us he's following orders, and it gradually becomes clear that Wayne is trying to manipulate him into letting down his guard.
Speaking of One Hour Photo: The stylistic parallels between that film and The Clearing, both Fox Searchlight movies, are interesting to note. Both feature somewhat parallel stories, sparse sets, subdued acting by people often known for hamming it up (Robin Williams, Dafoe), an eerily minimalist score and an ending that raises more questions than it answers. It's a welcome approach to material that could easily be overdone, and if the studio feels like putting out a few more films in this vein, more power to it.