The heat of passion has rarely felt as chilly as it does in "The Clearing," an opaque kidnapping drama that features three expertly crafted performances operating on three different planets. The directorial debut from producer Pieter Jan Brugge ("Bulworth," "The Insider"), the film feels very much like "In the Bedroom" moved Out to the Forest: It's intelligent, attentive, and repressed.
Wayne Hayes (Robert Redford, making one of the Sundance head's rare recent visits to the screen) is a wealthy businessman of quiet charisma, married to Eileen (Helen Mirren), an elegant lady-who-lunches. Their marriage looks Pottery Barn perfect on the surface, but it slowly becomes apparent that Wayne's first love is his own self-interest. When he fails to show up for a dinner party, one of the guests reassures Eileen, "It's all right. He never liked us."
Wayne isn't away on business, though. He has been taken prisoner by Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe), a former employee whose name rhymes a little too easily with "sad sack." Wearing a phony mustache and an air of desperate efficiency, Arnold gets his quarry at gunpoint, binds his hands, and takes Wayne on a march through the forest, toward the clearing of the title and a meeting with the men he claims hired him.
Meanwhile (or so it seems; the film's time scheme is purposefully vague), Eileen is contending with cryptic ransom demands and tantalizing proof that Wayne is safe: a vial of his blood, a recording of his voice. The couple's grown children (played by Alessandro Nivola of "Laurel Canyon" and Melissa Sagemiller) rally around their mother in fretful confusion, and an FBI agent named Fuller (Matt Craven) appears on the scene.
Not all that Fuller finds is pleasant: There's a mistress, for one thing, about whom Eileen is aware but has chosen to remain mostly silent. The current situation tosses out the playbook for decorous wives of the rich, though, and in a scene between Eileen and Louise (Wendy Crewson), you sense the older woman testing out the limits of her rage -- and enjoying it.
Wayne is caught up in a different series of negotiations. The long walk through the woods (the film takes place in the Pittsburgh area, but exteriors were shot in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina) becomes a test of wills between kidnapper and hostage.
These scenes form the heart of "The Clearing," and we see both the calculating willpower that made Wayne a tycoon and the hapless, self-pitying anger of Arnold, a good man who has lost out in business and in life.
Still, this half of "The Clearing" could have been more than it is. Dafoe usually plays characters of eccentric power; the role of nebbish fits him about as naturally as that mustache fits Arnold. For his part, Redford conveys the strength of the self-made man but not the avariciousness; Wayne seems to the manor born, which simply doesn't jibe with what we're told about him.
But everyone behaves well here, even when they don't. In the end, you're moved by Mirren's playing of Eileen's predicament: a woman increasingly filled with love for a flawed man who may be vanishing from her side. Discreetly filmed, slowly paced, looking for deeper motivation in every glance and comment, "The Clearing" never comes up with the emotional gold to justify the dig.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Directed by: Pieter Jan Brugge
Written by: Justin Haythe
Starring: Robert Redford, Willem Dafoe, Helen Mirren
At: Copley Place, Harvard Square, West Newton
Running time: 95 minutes
Rated: R (brief strong language)