Helen Mirren, Robert Redford and Willem Dafoe are unlikely action heroes because of their age, performers who have hung up the masters-of-the-universe bullshit and replaced it with introspection and other more cerebral thrills in The Clearing.
The Clearing is unconventional in some ways, for the age of its protagonists and for the way it bucks the usual thriller formula. Gone is the breakneck pacing and the kind of race-against-the-clock, heart-pounding hysteria that seems to dominate the genre, where bombs are always just about to detonate, people dangle from high buildings and tension is defined by the bead of sweat clinging to Mel Gibson's furrowed brow. Putting the focus on older actors seems to have given the film a more restrained, slow-moving rhythm.
But what The Clearing does have in common with the genre is precisely what draws actors like Gibson to the thriller: a family values agenda, in which some lawless scumbag launches a symbolic assault on the American family.
Eileen (Mirren) and Wayne Hayes (Redford) are just such a family, albeit with some backstory of adultery that adds a contemporary feel to their domestic life.
The couple, whose children left home long ago, lead a life of clockwork regularity. Breakfast by the pool, morning laps and shopping for her. Gray suit and office for him. When Wayne fails to return from the office for dinner one night, Eileen's placid, consummate-hostess mask briefly collapses as she phones the police to report a missing person.
Eileen's grown son and daughter fly home to support their mother, but it's Eileen who is the clear-eyed backbone of the family, a virtual Mrs. Miniver negotiating strategies with the FBI agents who decamp at her leafy mansion. And in frequent crosscutting, it's clear Wayne will weather the crisis in his own dignified way, too, even as his kidnapper--disgruntled former employee Arnold Mack (Dafoe)--leads his handcuffed victim into the woods toward some mysterious fate.
The relationships between the characters--the Feds and Eileen, Arnold and Wayne--have a businesslike, procedural quality to them, all about negotiating power arrangements and trying to gain the upper hand. Kidnapping, it turns out, is not too different from a business meeting.
And like some version of the corporate interview, Wayne subtly interrogates Arnold to figure out his motives and just what is awaiting them at the hunting cabin at the top of the mountain. The film becomes an anatomy of a marriage, and also an anatomy of an economic system in which there are definite winners and losers.
Dafoe's iconoclastic, cubist face makes him a natural to portray sadists and villains, of which he has played a few. But in loser mode, dressed like a J.C. Penney shoe salesman in a nylon jacket and short sleeve shirt, Dafoe never quite convinces. Dutch filmmaker Pieter Jan Brugge undoubtedly cast Dafoe to convey Arnold's slithering status on the bottom of the socioeconomic food chain. But there is something too clever about Dafoe's features to make his pathetic white-collar nebbish believable.
Besides, some people in the audience might be inclined to side with Arnold, a victim of the layoff culture fired after 17 years on the job and reduced to doing an ugly job for a needed paycheck.
But The Clearing's survival-of-the-fittest agenda makes it obvious just who we're meant to root for. Wayne is capitalism's crowning glory, always measured and cool. Arnold, however, twitches and frets like a worm on the end of a stick--he is in control by virtue of his gun, but Wayne has the clear moral and psychological advantage.
Like some welfare mama hanging on the Man's apron strings, Arnold wants a shortcut to economic stability. Wayne looks at him with curled-lip contempt in this Ballad of the Self-Made Man. An evolutionary thriller, The Clearing not only reinforces the status quo, it grinds the face of the economy's losers in the dirt and does a victory dance on their head.
The Clearing is a cultural mash of post-Sept. 11 malaise in which people like Eileen and Wayne who previously took each other for granted begin to appreciate one another. But alongside that message, of family as more important than money or business, there is also a strange sense of capitalist chest beating and bluster in which a powerful executive kidnapped by an underling demonstrates to the junior employee why he will always be a drone.
The Clearing may bore the pants off of thriller fans accustomed to more roller coaster action. But it has a slow-building grief going for it. And by its denouement, the fate of its characters is less important than rattling around inside their heads for a little while.
The Clearing opens Friday at The Flicks.
This article first appeared in Creative Loafing, Atlanta's alternative newsweekly.