- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

“The Clearing” sustains a deceptive sense of anticipation for perhaps half an hour. This reasonably promising prelude depicts the kidnapping of Robert Redford by Willem Dafoe and the subsequent vigil demanded of Helen Mirren as the victim’s wife, Alessandro Nivola and Melissa Sagemiller as their grown children and Matt Craven as an FBI detective who makes himself at home a little too complacently for my taste.Evidently, he’s on to the fact that the remaining hour is destined to fizzle and won’t require much in the way of mental or physical exertion from his particular interloper.

Indeed, a diminishing sense of urgency is what sinks “The Clearing” as it attempts to unfold in suspenseful or psychologically intriguing ways. The suspicion also grows that someone is taking the title a bit generously by clearing out settings and episodes in order to make it easier for a first-time director, Pieter Jan Brugge, to concentrate on a bare minimum of performers for the duration.

The result is closer to an “Empyting” than a “Clearing.” Of all the possible alternatives available to contrivers of a kidnapping-for-ransom plot, Mr. Brugge and screenwriter Justin Haythe seem to have chosen the most deflating and unrewarding. They’d have a swell text for a screenwriting class titled “Mastering the Anticlimax.”

Mr. Dafoe plays a sad-sack felon called Arnold Mack, who abducts Mr. Redford’s Wayne Hayes, a car rental tycoon, in the driveway of his suburban estate in Pittsburgh. At gunpoint Arnold leads Wayne on a forced march up mountainous terrain. He claims to be the agent of senior conspirators, who await at the end of the climb. During breaks, the prisoner endeavors to talk his captor out of participating in the crime and makes counteroffers, spurned for reasons that are harder to fathom after the denouement.

Miss Mirren’s Eileen Hayes is initially slow to suspect a disappearance, due to lingering elements of marital estrangement that preoccupy the filmmakers to a fault. The character must cope with tension and uncertainty at home before being diverted around town and countryside for sleuthing and money-dropping excursions, including one nocturnal rendezvous in the woods that certainly flatters her courage.

But the movie has dawdled too much to salvage things at crunch time. Among other slip-ups, the time element in the Arnold-Wayne trek doesn’t seem to match the duration of Eileen’s activities. Did the filmmakers neglect to synchronize watches while planning out the parallel events in their plot?

Helen Mirren’s memorable association with the English police series “Prime Suspect” also casts an unintentional shadow of disillusion over “The Clearing.” You keep expecting her to bark instructions at the dormant Mr. Craven and seize control of the case, which could certainly use a change of command.

The nature of the miscalculations aren’t mysterious enough to be interesting. Obviously, victim and abductor need to begin conversing enough on one side — and family and bystanders on the other — to make a waiting game simultaneously gripping and revelatory.

The desired human-interest counterpoint remains beyond reach and out of hearing. In all likelihood it was never adequately distilled on the page.

The participation of name performers tends to magnify the shortcomings. It’s as if they generously donated their time for a student project that was somehow stretched from short-story format into an undernourished feature.

As a co-producer, Mr. Brugge has been associated with such prominent movies as “The Insider,” “Heat,” “The Pelican Brief” and “Glory.”

Perhaps he was looking for something on the compact side to commence a directing career.

What he achieves is something on the negligible side.

*1/2

TITLE:#”The Clearing”

RATING: R (Occasional graphic violence, profanity and sexual candor)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by Pieter Jan Brugge. Screenplay by Justin Haythe. Cinematography by Denis Lenoir

RUNNING TIME: 91 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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