On a beautiful summer's morning in Pittsburgh's South Hills, two men begin their day. Arnold (Willem Dafoe) leaves his slightly shabby rowhouse, and executes a puzzling series of maneuvers with his car. In the more verdant hills, Wayne (Robert Redford) pads about his well-cushioned estate dressing for success, while his wife, Eileen (Helen Mirren), reminds him of a dinner engagement. As Wayne rolls his car out of the driveway, he is kidnapped by Arnold and driven into the country where the two set off through the woods to a rendezvous at a distant cabin.
It is here in first-time director Pieter Jan Brugge's psychological thriller The Clearing that the narrative splits into two distinct halves. One half follows Wayne and Arnold during that first day as they trudge through the trees; the second thread unspools over weeks as Eileen, her two grown children and FBI investigators struggle to determine what happened. It's a clever trick that works better than one would expect, as the story (co-written by Brugge and novelist Justin Haythe) is constructed in such a manner that neither strand compromises the other, and their conclusions remain unknowable.
Instead, we watch as Wayne's life is slowly unraveled. A shrewd self-made businessman, he can't resist trying to befriend Arnold, a onetime employee who is watching the last bits of his life's meaning ebb away, the sort of man forever in the shadows of a golden lion like Wayne. The two spar and share confidences -- Wayne seeks strategic advantage, while Arnold relishes the proximity to Wayne's power and confidence. Meanwhile, back at the estate, the FBI methodically pulls Wayne's life apart, leaving the pieces strewn about for his family to sift through.
In this nicely cast film, Redford as Wayne gets a chance to deconstruct what has often been his own screen image, the fair-haired, cocky alpha male. Dafoe plays against type: His Arnold isn't another of his manic sadist turns, so much as he's a Willy Loman pushed to a different self-destructive edge. Mirren is always a pleasure to watch, though I wish the story had given her meatier bits that helped define her better.
The Clearing is a compact story that favors quiet suspense over histrionics or slam-bang action. That's certainly a plus in these dog days of mindless summer popcorn movies, though at times, I found The Clearing to be so low-key in its approach to a nightmarish event that it ran the risk of draining the story of its necessary emotional tension. Still, a chance to see actors work quietly and effectively, even in a thriller that errs on the side of tepid, is a welcome summer treat.