U.S. Release Date: July 2, 2004
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Director: Pieter Jan Brugge
Writer: Pieter Jan Brugge (story), Justin Haythe
Producer: Pieter Jan Brugge, Jonah Smith
Composer: Craig Armstrong
Cast: Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, Willem Dafoe
Running Time: 1 hour and 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (for brief strong language)

The Unnatural
by Scott Holleran

The talents of veteran actors Robert Redford and Helen Mirren cannot save The Clearing from a contrived plot.

The kidnapping tale is built around three central characters: Mr. Redford's dynamic businessman, Willem Dafoe's unemployed kidnapper and Mr. Redford's wife, played by Helen Mirren. The set-up is solid, with Dafoe's character stalking Mr. Redford as he's pulling out of his western Pennsylvania estate's driveway before moving in for a disarmingly easy grab. First-time director Pieter Jan Brugge, who produced The Pelican Brief and The Insider, uses a simple approach that suits the picture's hostage plot and he exploits Pittsburgh's hills for suspense. But The Clearing is obscured by Justin Haythe's foggy script.

As the wife waits for word about her husband, she is joined by the feds and two adult children and, as with any decent thriller, the facts come slowly. Brugge maintains some tension, which quickly dissipates. In the crucial hours after the abduction, Mr. Redford's family is distinctly unmoved. The kids act as if they're home for spring break instead of agonizing over their father's fate.

Miss Mirren as the rich, possibly neglected, wife is more unfeeling than unflappable. It's impossible to sympathize with a woman whose husband has been seized when she's more interested in serving a candlelight dinner to FBI agents than in trying to outsmart the kidnappers, as the feds propose. Lacking depth, her character—who insists on celebrating a child's birthday while Mr. Redford's life hangs in the balance—is merely callous.

Dialog is wooden—especially between abductor and hostage—and rambling conversations tell us nothing about character motives, values or actions. That may be exactly the point, though it's hard to tell; The Clearing, which displays its red herrings as an artistic achievement, holds that seeing is not believing, which begs the question: why bother watching?

Major characters are more elusive than mysterious. Dafoe's hapless schlep is more likely to hold up the 7-11 than heist a top executive. A subplot about an extramarital affair, intended to enhance the drama, falls flat. And an unusual time frame, which is supposed to be what Hollywood types would probably call edgy (whatever that means), is irritating.

Brugge's style does elicit a marginal sense of excitement, but the climax feels faked. Brugge captures a glimpse of what he might have provided for Mr. Redford and Miss Mirren, who deserve intelligent scripts, but what emerges in The Clearing is anything but clear.

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