Vanishing, The (1993)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2014-12-04 20:31

The Vanishing (1993)
Studio: Twilight Time
Release date: October 14th, 2014

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

The movie:

The Vanishing is an old story retold in more ways than one: obviously, it’s a redux of George Sluizier’s original Dutch film, but it’s also another cautionary tale about Hollywood taking a foreign masterpiece and completely missing the point. This one arrives with a bit of a twist as well, as Sluzier helmed it himself, a decision you’d like to think serves as a good omen; instead, it’s one of the more confounding aspects of this effort, which at least makes for an interesting case study. Depending on how much you acknowledge the context, it’s perfunctory at best and almost blasphemous at worst.

On the surface, it’s mostly the same story, only the players have been switched out for Kiefer Sutherland, Sandra Bullock, and Jeff Bridges. The former are Jeff and Diane, a usually happy couple having a pretty contentious day during a vacation up to Mount St. Helens; the latter is an unfeeling sociopath who crosses their path at a gas station, abducts Diane, and sends Jeff down a three-year path of obsessively seeking answers.

For viewers, there is very little mystery: unlike the Dutch original, this take opens with Bridges’s Barney Cousins—an obviously disturbed, highly eccentric psychopath—practicing his abduction routine and strategy, a shift in focus that changes the dynamic for the worse. This Vanishing isn’t a mystery: it’s a fill-in-the-blanks thriller from the outset, only the familiar plugins have been shuffled around and are played at a different speed.

In the twenty years since the release of The Vanishing, Hollywood has conjured up all sort of bullshit labels for its various retreads: remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, etc. None of these apply all that well to this situation, which is best described as a remix. Imagine a dirge that’s been injected with a techno house music beat: that’s this version of The Vanishing, a film that takes a moody, existential drama and lobotomizes it into a high-octane Hollywood thriller. No longer a mediation on the banality of evil, the film isn’t about much of anything despite some ham-fisted dialogue towards the end that’s hell bent on convincing you otherwise.

Speaking of the ending: it’s tempting to point to it as the most egregious betrayal of the source material (a fair argument that’s supported by the fact that the movie ends on a visual gag), but it’s not as if the preceding hour hasn't primed you for it, particularly in its treatment of Jeff’s budding romance with a waitress (Nancy Travis). Where the original film treats a similar subplot with subtlety and restraint (one of that film’s strengths is knowing what not to say), this one sees this development as an excuse to engage in tawdry melodrama. Had it only served to highlight and underline Jeff’s obsession and self-destructiveness, it might be a serviceable but vestigial appendage; however, considering it opens the door for the film’s ludicrous climax, it’s more of an unwieldy growth that becomes terminally distracting.

Credit is due to Sluzier for not simply replicating his previous film, I suppose: save for the obvious plot similarities, this feels like a different movie altogether—which is to say, it feels like mindless escapism. This is no longer a twisty, fascinating examination of a sociopath—it’s just yet another brainless thriller that uses a maniac as window dressing.

Of course, The Vanishing opens up the ol’ Pandora’s Box: would it really be that much of a disappointment if it weren’t caught in the shadow of its superior predecessor? In this case, it’s sort of complicated, as this is where I admit to having seen and enjoyed this version many years before I was even aware of the original. By recreating and feigning that ignorance as best possible, it’s perhaps easier to enjoy The Vanishing for the cheap thrills it provides: it’s somehow a pleasantly thrilling movie featuring clichéd characters and perfectly fine Hollywood actors (shout out to Kiefer Sutherland and his unkempt mullet strolling in from 1987).

Bridges’s casting almost feels like a stunt, and he embraces the opportunity accordingly with a highly-affected complete with a weird accent—everything about him signifies an oddball, which stands in stark contrast to Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu’s comparatively muted, sinister performance. Still, it’s sort of fun to watch Bridges relish such a bizarre role, plus Sluzier at least as a decent grasp on this mode of filmmaking, from his capturing drearily ominous Pacific Northwest landscapes to the white-knuckle pacing of the climax.

Regardless, it’s very difficult to outrun that shadow, which shades almost every moment of this effort, and describing The Vanishing with words like "fun" and "thrilling" just feels wrong. Maybe that’s not fair, but it’s not like anyone was forced to update a masterpiece. I feel more like a disappointed parent than a movie critic at this point: you dug this grave, The Vanishing, now lie in it.

The disc:

Then again, maybe it doesn’t have much to be ashamed of—apparently, it’s gathered a decent enough cult following for Twilight Time to release it as part of its limited edition series, where it arrives on Blu-ray with a theatrical trailer, an isolated score track, and liner notes by Julie Kirgo. In addition to a pristine transfer, the upgraded presentation also features both 5.1 and 2.0 DTS-MA tracks to appease purists. Ultimately, this a fine release for a curious effort—it’s not exactly a fascinating experiment like Van Sant’s Psycho, but it’s worth dissecting to see just how easily—and wildly—things can be lost in translation, even with the original director at the helm.

The Vanishing and other Twilight Time titles can be purchased at Screen Archives.
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