Dir: Pieter Jan Brugge.2004. US. 91mins.
Robert Redford returns to the big screenseveral months after his brutal vilification in the pages of Peter Biskind's Down And Dirty Pictures as an enemy ofindependent film - with, of all things, a small, independent-style film forthinking adults, albeit one financed and distributed by the independent arm ofstudio behemoth 20th Century Fox. Presented earlier this year atSundance as a work in progress, where it received a muted if not indifferentresponse by critics and audiences alike, TheClearing remains a muddled and tentative work upon official release, onethat seems destined to fall between the cracks of an extremely crowded - anddisproportionately youthful - summer schedule. The film opens in the US on July2.

A psychological thrillerabout a wealthy American businessman kidnapped by a downsized blue-collarworker - who may or may not be acting alone in his ransom demands - The Clearing purports to examine theAmerican dream under duress, from the dual perspectives of a magnate who's gotit all and his minion-kidnapper who wants it all. Sandwiched between the tense interplay of kidnapper andvictim is the plight of the magnate's wife, a pampered creature whose meticulouslykept mansion gets messed up by the arrival of a team of FBI agents determinedto bring the kidnapping victim back alive.

Redford stars as WayneHayes, the self-made founder of a car rental business - he's described in thefilm as "the man Hertz and Avis are afraid of" - whose monetary success andresulting domestic bliss in a Pittsburgh manor home conceal numerousshortcomings, including a pensive, slightly removed wife, Eileen (HelenMirren), whose days consist of swimming, shopping and entertaining, and ageneral dissatisfaction with money that prompts Hayes to hurl his spare cash asangry wads into an office drawer alongside a check for $42 million he's encasedin glass.

Enter Arnold Mack (WillemDafoe), an ordinary blue-collar type living in a cramped row house in a drabneighbourhood who kidnaps Hayes on his way to work one morning and drives himto a nearby forest where he confesses to his victim that he was a victimhimself - of corporate downsizing many years ago.

Hayes has been lead tobelieve he's being delivered to his true captors - Mack maintains he's amiddle-man simply out to make a buck. But Hayes is a man who has spent much ofhis life closing deals and second-guessing rivals, and he quickly gains theupper hand over Mack, who's so desperate to co-opt Hayes' wealth and successthat he offers sympathy and kindness. Mack claims to know everything aboutHayes and his rise to success, even inserting himself into Hayes' past - butHayes knows that much more about his captor and his motives, even if he can'tquite place Mack - because he's fought hard to elude failure his whole life.

When Eileen discovers herhusband missing, she's initially unmoved (maybe it's all that expensivefurniture). She summons her grown son and daughter (Alessandro Nivola andMelissa Sagemiller) for a dinner of quaint reminiscing before a methodical FBIagent (Matt Craven) delivers news that Hayes had been involved in anextramarital affair. Eileen claims to have been aware of his adultery - andbegs him to keep the revelation from her children.

Hayes, meanwhile, battlesMack for control over his life while Eileen and the FBI sit by the phoneawaiting ransom demands that never arrive. Eileen pays a visit to her husband'smistress in an effort to better comprehend the increasingly grave prospects forWayne's survival while her son suddenly loses his cool with the FBI and herdaughter remains icily aloof during the escalation of events that culminates inEileen delivering the ransom monies under FBI surveillance.

Structured as a parallelemotional struggle between kidnapper and victim and the wife of the victim asshe struggles to make sense of the unfolding events, it's an oddly confoundingwork that hits its mark neither as thriller nor domestic drama. Much of this isdue to the temporal disconnect that emerges between what is presented in thekidnapping scenes and what unravels in the Hayes home: Wayne's fate is revealedin a 24-hour period while Eileen's plight stretches out over several weeks,creating a jarring discord in narrative events that makes the film's scant91-minute running time feel like twice that.

There's nothing especiallythrilling about watching a rich white American corporate figure (who is neithernice nor overtly nasty) bargain for his survival, even if it's at the hands ofa downsized man of the people played by the perennially unsettling WillemDafoe. With so much corporate malfeasance in the world right now, you'reinclined to root for Hayes' comeuppance. Redford delivers a stilted performanceat best - you keep wishing he'd break out of his starch-collared stiffness andkick some golden-boy ass, but this happens only fleetingly.

Displaying the same grizzledresolve as her beloved Prime Suspectheroine, Mirren delivers another seamless depiction of an embattled womantrying in vain to maintain grace under pressure. It's the lines on Mirren'sface, not Redford's, that own this picture. But Mirren, with her prim blond boband pampered veneer, bears more than a passing resemblance to fallen home decoricon Martha Stewart, which doesn't bode well for the film's excavation of theAmerican dream. The spectre of corporate malfeasance inadvertently haunts The Clearing, so it becomes difficult toamass much sympathy for its key characters. You expect at least two of them togo to jail, which probably wasn't the intention of the filmmakers.

Director Brugge, a native ofHolland who was nominated for an Oscar for his production work on MichaelMann's The Insider, based his storyon an actual kidnapping that took place in the Netherlands - Brugge seemed tothink it would travel well to America, land of the self-made crass capitalistand his cuckolded, furniture-hungry wife. But Brugge can't seem to escape thesterility of his origins - The Clearingis a chilly, antiseptic film that leaves its audience with nothing to hold ontobut a parade of victims.

What Brugge wants to sayabout the American dream and its pitfalls remains elusive. Even the film'stitle is open to interpretation. Halfway through the film it becomes clear thatThe Clearing isn't about the woods,where Wayne has been forced to take stock of his situation while his harriedwife picks up the pieces of - or possibly even purges - his absence at home.Brugge and his screenwriter seem eager to convey some sense of purificationwhen all is said and done - but a clearing of what, exactly' The guilt andlonging that wealth ostensibly brings' The pleasantly airy sensation of RobertRedford's name disappearing from the art-house marquee after the film's run'

In the end, The Clearing serves up a perplexingmoral at best: If you're rich and successful, you can't get away with murderand if you're poor and a failure, you can't either. You're doomed either way.We are all flawed and messy, this muddled cautionary tale suggests - no matterour take-home pay.

Prod cos: A Thousand Words; WildwoodEnterprises
US dist:
Fox Searchlight
Int'l dist: 20th Century Fox
Prods: Palmer West, Jonah Smith
Justin Haythe, from a story by Pieter Jan Brugge and JustinHaythe
Denis Lenoir
Kevin Tent
Prod des:
Chris Gorak
Music: Craig Armstrong
Main cast:
Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, WillemDafoe, Alessandro Nivola, Matt Craven, Melissa Sagemiller, Wendy Crewson, LarryPine, Diana Scarwid, Elizabeth Ruscio