Mildly diverting but bound to be forgotten, The Clearing marries a not entirely convincing kidnap melodrama to a domestic melodrama. In the process, no new ground is covered in either genre, nothing terribly surprising happens, and the unnecessary final moments ring emotionally false. If The Clearing has any cachet, it's in the cleverly fragmented storyline and the performances of its three leads—Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, and Willem Dafoe—but even those are hardly revelatory.
Director Pieter Jan Brugge and screenwriter Justin Haythe underwork a couple of basic themes: the proprietary ownership of a so-called "great man" and the notion that you don't truly miss someone until he or she is gone. The great man in question is Redford's Wayne Hayes, about whom his wife Eileen (Mirren) says, "He really made you feel like you were the center of the world." Kidnapper Arnold Mack (Dafoe) might disagree, at least at first, but Wayne ingratiates himself as best as he can while Arnold marches him deeper into a forest. Does Wayne belong to his wife and kids, to his business interests, to Arnold, or to someone else? Possession is nine-tenths of the law, they say, and outlaw Arnold holds all the cards.
In a parallel but not chronologically fitted storyline, Eileen and her children with Wayne work with the intrusive FBI, headed up by Matt Craven's gentle but firm agent. The dialogue can be clunky ("It's a household full of disappointed people...everybody suffers, isn't that right?"), though the story is reasonably tense and involving to a point, benefiting as it does from what Haythe and Brugge withhold. Brugge squanders the tension, though, by botching key scenes, like a struggle in the woods which fails to stand up to scrutiny.
That leaves the acting, which mostly elevates the wan material. Mirren is typically sterling in painting Eileen's ire and loss and shame, but she's done comparable work in numerous, better films, so why bother to seek her out here? Dafoe brings an eccentric vulnerability to Arnold which goes a long way to making the film function at all. Redford, who enters haggard and finds his journey all downhill from there, is suitably charismatic and wary; though Wayne never becomes a fully-rounded character (indeed, none of the characters do in this too-thin yarn), Redford makes a good enough conduit for the idea of a man reevaluating his life.