A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
A movie that begins with a pleasant morning in an ordinary marriage is never about mornings or marriages. As "The Clearing" opens, we meet Wayne and Eileen Hayes, long and apparently pleasantly married, in their elegant stone-walled mansion in a woodsy suburb. Wayne (Robert Redford) gets in his car, at the end of his driveway stops for a man who seems to know him, and finds himself kidnapped at gunpoint. Eileen (Helen Mirren) has a cup of coffee at the side of their pool.
We've already met the kidnapper, a man named Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe). He lives with his perpetually disappointed wife and her father in a row house in a nearby city. We see him paste on a moustache in the mirror, which seems odd, and we follow him as he travels to his work (kidnapping) on a commuter train. Arnold approaches Wayne with such easy familiarity, waving a manila envelope as if it contained important papers, that Wayne automatically stops and rolls down the car window for him. Perhaps he even sort of remembers him, or feels that good manners requires him to say that he does.
The movie intercuts between two story lines: Wayne, his hands tied, led by Arnold on a long trek at gunpoint through a wooden area, and Eileen, concerned when he doesn't return home and eventually calling in the FBI. These time lines are not parallel, a fact that eventually occurs to us, along with its implications.
We learn a lot about Wayne as he and Arnold talk. Arnold has studied up on him, knows he's a self-made millionaire who bought and sold a car rental company at the right time. Wayne is rich, lives surrounded by luxury and is expensively dressed, but he has the tough instincts of a negotiator, and tries to talk Arnold out of the kidnapping. Arnold says the men who hired him are waiting in a cottage at the end of their walk, and Wayne asks him why those men should honor their deal with him. Arnold, who is not a professional criminal, listens politely and perhaps agrees with some of what Wayne says.