It seems unlikely that Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, and Willem Dafoe agreed to appear in The Clearing after only reading half of the script (by first-time screenwriter Justin Haythe), but who really knows? That's the best way to explain a film that starts with so much promise, but finishes with so little of it fulfilled. Maybe producer turned first-time director Pieter Jan Brugge only had half the script, as well. With considerable skill, he creates a tense, foreboding atmosphere, but he never finds a moment to let that tension snap. He drops one shoe, then lets the other dangle teasingly until the credits roll.
While it lasts, however, that tension is considerable. In a too-rare starring role, Redford plays a Pennsylvania businessman who's carved out a prosperous existence by clawing his way up through the rental-car industry. He lives in comfort with his wife (Mirren), who still shoots him loving looks when she remembers to glance up from the newspaper. It's not that she takes him for granted, exactly; it's just that past events, revealed later in the film, have taught her the wisdom of pursuing other interests.
But her focus returns to her husband when he disappears, kidnapped by down-on-his-luck former coworker Willem Dafoe. The Clearing then cuts between two points of focus: Redford and Dafoe in the hours after the kidnapping, as they take a long, slow march to a cabin said to house the men who hired Dafoe for the kidnapping, and Mirren and her family in the succeeding days, as they arrange to deliver a massive ransom in diamonds and bills.
This potentially illuminating chronological scheme is probably the film's most compelling element. But, like the rest of The Clearing, it never adds up to much. There's a fair amount of fine acting (with that cast, how could there not be?), but it's in the service of a story that bubbles without ever boiling. Dafoe and Redford have some heated exchanges that illuminate the difference between the haves and the have-nots, Redford reflects on a marriage of ups and downs (the downs are mostly of his making), and Mirren comes to a greater understanding of her husband in his absence than she could with him around. But The Clearing keeps all of these developments at arm's length up until the finale, which simply abandons most of them before winding down into nothing.