Classy, decorous and well acted, directorial debut by Hollywood producer Pieter Jan Brugge is nicely crafted but too buttoned up to generate more than polite interest, much less the urgent excitement a kidnapping story might be expected to trigger. Fox Searchlight item looks to scare up only modest returns theatrically.

“The Clearing” tests the limits of how restrained a suspense film can be and still remain suspenseful. Classy, decorous and well acted, directorial debut by Hollywood producer Pieter Jan Brugge is nicely crafted but too buttoned up to generate more than polite interest, much less the urgent excitement a kidnapping story might be expected to trigger. Initially unveiled in unfinished form as a special screening at the Sundance Film Festival five months ago, Fox Searchlight item looks to scare up only modest returns theatrically.

Beautifully tailored in Ermenegildo Zegna and cocooned in seemingly impregnable luxury, Robert Redford creates the immediate impression of an older version of the solicitous tycoon he essayed in “Indecent Proposal.” Here, however, he’s playing Wayne Hayes, a shrewd businessman who has cashed in by selling the rental car business he built from scratch. Living in a grand stone mansion outside Pittsburgh, Wayne seems attentive to his wife Eileen (Helen Mirren), but his slightly pre-occupied manner suggests a man ever on the lookout for an advantage, whose mind is constantly ranging about for possibilities.

These traits are shortly put to the test, for upon being hailed in his driveway, Wayne is held at gunpoint by a stranger who gets into his car and tells him to drive off. Assailant is Arnold Mack (Willem Dafoe), a man with a paste-on moustache who uneventfully crossed paths with Wayne years back. He not only knows all about Wayne’s success but about his personal peccadilloes as well.

Working from a story he developed with Brugge, screenwriter Justin Haythe, the British-born author of the novel “Honeymoon,” intriguingly splits the story from this point into two narratives that unfold in different time frames, the first encompassing the long day Arnold spends marching a hands-bound Wayne through a forest, the second chronicling Eileen’s agonizing collaboration with the FBI to figure out what happened to her missing husband.

On the second morning after the disappearance, Eileen receives a package that includes her husband’s car keys, but there is no ransom demand or other indication of what the kidnapper might want. Asked the routine questions by FBI agent Fuller (Matt Craven) about anyone in Wayne’s past who might have anything against him, Eileen admits he did have an affair that’s now over. Otherwise, she’s clueless, and she shares hushed anguish in her coldly opulent home with visiting son Tim (Alessandro Nivola) and daughter Jill (Melissa Sagemiller).

As Arnold trudges Wayne through a drippingly verdant wilderness toward an appointment with the people he says hired him, he reveals himself to be surprisingly mild-mannered. Where one could easily imagine Dafoe as a crazed or calculating kidnapper, thesp in fact offers a subdued rendering of one of life’s losers, a working stiff who slipped through the cracks of corporate America and, now unemployed, must resentfully live in “a household of disappointed people” including his ordinary wife and elderly father-in-law.

Trying to connect on a human level with his kidnapper in an attempt to gauge his weaknesses, Wayne draws Arnold out while gaining modest favors, such as having his hands tied in front of him rather than in back, and being allowed to remove his coat in the stifling heat and humidity. As Arnold increasingly shows himself as a seemingly reasonable, softhearted soul, an emboldened Wayne senses he can turn the tables and negotiate or trick his way out of Arnold’s clutches. Circumstances, however, eventually propel the men onto a slippery slope for which neither could have planned.

Scenes between the two men, enacted in the dense forests of the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Smoky Mountains near Asheville, N.C., are the best in the picture, as the actors expertly volley low-key, high stakes dialogue. Portraying a man whose entire business career was defined by his status as a long-shot underdog who successfully took on the big boys at their own game, Redford presents a stoic veneer while quietly revealing the constant calculations Wayne makes of how best to deal with his adversary.

As fine an actress as she is, however, Mirren can’t satisfyingly burst out of the dramatic straightjacket of her role as written. Much is going on within Eileen, who doesn’t get much in the way of support either from her agitated son or unforthcoming daughter, and who is forced to absorb some hitherto unknown information when she visits her husband’s mistress (a lovely and sympathetic Wendy Crewson).

But Eileen is a woman who has been a proper, tended-to upper-class woman for so long that she has practically become defined by reticence and propriety, and her lack of real-life know-how comes crucially into play in the later stages. It’s easy to see that a lifetime of accommodations and often unexpressed feelings is meant to emerge between the lines of Eileen’s mostly mundane utterings, but while Mirren does her best to convey the intended subtext, there’s simply not enough going on in her airless household to rivet viewer attention.

Result is a character-driven suspenser that engages the mind more than the emotions, but neither grippingly. Brugge, who was a producer on the likes of “The Pelican Brief,” “Bulworth” and “The Insider,” reveals a brisk, capable hand behind the camera with, at least for this material, too much of a taste for under statement; his apparent urge to avoid genre cliches and audience pandering takes him too far in the opposite direction, as the picture resists every opportunity to quicken the viewer’s pulse.

Tech credits are fine, notably Kevin Tent’s tight editing and Denis Lenoir’s atmospheric lensing on locations that also include Pittsburgh and Atlanta.

The Clearing

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox Searchlight Pictures and Thousand Words presentation in association with Mediastream III of a Thousand Words/Wildwood production. Produced by Palmer West, Jonah Smith, Pieter Jan Brugge. Executive producer, Karen Tenkehoff. Co-producer, Dara Weintraub. Directed by Pieter Jan Brugge. Screenplay, Justin Haythe, story by Brugge, Haythe.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Denis Lenoir; editor, Kevin Tent; music, Craig Armstrong; production designer, Chris Gorak; art director, Paul Huggins; set decorator, Marthe Pineau; costume designer, Florence-Isabelle Megginson; sound (Dolby), Douglas Axtell; supervising sound editors, Paul Flinchbaugh, David Kudell, David Stanke; assistant director, John Rusk; casting, Vickie Thomas. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, Los Angeles, June 21, 2004. (In Los Angeles Film Festival -- closing night.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 95 MIN.

With

Wayne Hayes - Robert Redford Eileen Hayes - Helen Mirren Arnold Mack - Willem Dafoe Tim Hayes - Alessandro Nivola Agent Ray Fuller - Matt Craven Jill Hayes - Melissa Sagemiller Louise Miller - Wendy Crewson Tom Finch - Larry Pine Eva Finch - Diana Scarwid Cindy Mack - Elizabeth Ruscio
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