The Clearing

on July 02, 2004 by Michael Tunison
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A kidnapping, a distraught family, one middle-aged guy force-marching another through the woods--"The Clearing" is about as down-to-earth and unsexy as star vehicles get these days. That turns out to be a refreshingly human approach, but even with the commanding trio of Robert Redford, Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe heading the cast, this throwback to the deliberately paced, more realistic dramatic thrillers of the '70s has trouble getting past its plain-Jane premise to make the emotional impact the filmmakers are clearly aiming for.

The simple setup follows a determined kidnapper ("Spider-Man's" Dafoe) as he abducts a wealthy Pittsburgh businessman (Redford, ever more craggy-faced but still all movie star). As the crook leads his captive on a forest trek at gunpoint, the victim's wife (Mirren from "Calendar Girls") and adult children ("Laurel Canyon's" Alessandro Nivola and "Sorority Boys'" Melissa Sagemiller) endure the expected emotional torture as the FBI manages the slow trickle of information about the case. As these parallel story strands unwind, we gradually learn more about both the kidnapper's motivations and the tensions straining the victim's family relationships prior to the crime.

More of a drama with suspense-story elements than the other way around, the film works through all this in a convincing, real-world manner that's all too rare in American thrillers these days. Dutch-born producer Pieter Jan Brugge ("The Insider," "Bulworth") brings a welcome intelligence and subtlety to his directorial debut, but "The Clearing" ends up occupying an awkward position between genres--neither twisty and surprising enough to succeed on plot alone nor dramatically rich enough to deliver as a full-on character piece à la "In the Bedroom." It ultimately falls on the actors' inherent screen appeal to keep us engaged, a task for which the compelling leading players are well suited. Still, even a sympathetic viewer comes away more impressed by the film's intentions than its overall impact. Starring Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, Willem Dafoe, Alessandro Nivola, Matt Craven, Melissa Sagemiller and Wendy Crewson. Directed Pieter Jan Brugge. Written by Justin Haythe. Produced by Palmer West, Jonah Smith and Pieter Jan Brugge. A Fox Searchlight release. Action/Drama. Rated R for brief strong language. Running time: 90 min

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