January 08, 2014

Lerman's 14 For '14 Day Five: THE VANISHING Might As Well Be Schrodinger's Cat: The Movie

"Either I let her go on living and never know, or I let her die and find out what happened.  So...I let her die."
I have very vague recollections of a movie from the early 90's called The Vanishing.  It starred Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges (pre-Dude) and a very young Sandra Bullock.  I don't know why I remember this movie.  At best it's a footnote in the careers of three actors who hadn't yet peaked, (or, in the case of Sutherland, was in between peaks) I don't remember anyone anyone ever discussing the movie in any way, and I never actually saw it.  But I feel like it played on TV a lot when I was a kid, likely because it came out right before Sandra Bullock really hit it big.  So far as I can tell, this wasn't really considered a breakout role for Bullock, whose only major lead to date involved some pretty stunning false teeth in the unfortunate romantic comedy Love Potion No. 9.  But immediately after The Vanishing came Demolition Man, Speed, While You Were Sleeping and The Net, a movie that's more than earned its spot in the pantheon of Hilariously Inaccurate And/Or Outdated Technology Films.  Anyway, my guess is that some network was able to grab the TV rights to The Vanishing on the cheap and played it enough times that the film somehow lodged itself into the hazy memories of my youth.

I had no idea it was a remake of a 1988 Dutch film until I found it listed on Lerman's roster.  (He was adamant that I make sure to watch the original.)  It's pretty good, but I'll admit that the movie didn't particularly bowl me over one way or the other.  I had a general idea of the setup going in based on the American version which, interestingly enough. was also directed by George Sluizer.  A young couple is on a road trip and along the way the woman suddenly and mysteriously goes missing.  Much like Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, I can appreciate that the film starts by immediately faking out the audience: the couple's car runs out of fuel in a tunnel and when Rex returns with a tank of gas, he finds the car empty.  But Saskia is revealed to be waiting at the other end of the tunnel - she was afraid that a car might collide with theirs in the darkness.  When they arrive at a gas station moments later, she goes inside to use the restroom and I was sure she was a goner but in fact she soon returned, and with a frisbee no less!  But the third time's the charm, and when Saskia goes back in for drinks, she promptly disappears.

It was at this point that the film sharply deviated from my expectations.  I was anticipating a ticking clock film, with the boyfriend frantically chasing down a series of clues in a race against time to save his love.  Instead, the story immediately jumps forward three years, where Saskia remains missing but Rex has never stopped looking for her.  The man responsible frequently sends him taunting postcards and even though he has a new woman in his life, Rex is really starting to lose it.  We then jump back far before Saskia's abduction and meet her captor, middle class father and chemistry professor Raymond Lemorne.  This man has resolved himself to kidnapping a woman and we spend a lot of time watching him refine his plan of attack.  He goes through a number of false starts and failed attempts - he's incredibly inept as a criminal, but also remarkably lucky in that he never captures the attention of the authorities.  Still, it's a pretty novel storytelling approach and not at all what I thought I was getting.  Just as we see Lemorne watching Rex and Saskia arrive at the gas station on that fateful day, we jump forward in time once again, as Lemorne reveals himself to Rex offers to explain what happened that day and why he did it if Rex will come with him on a short road trip.  He won't say whether Saskia is alive or dead, but promises that Rex will get answers to all his questions.

The final reveal is pretty fucking dark.  (Spoilers.)  The abduction played out from Lemorne's perspective is really great, a perfect culmination of all his past attempts.  But at the same time, in a way it's not very dramatically satisfying.  Lemorne basically kidnapped Saskia as an intellectual exercise, just to see if he was capable of it.  Eventually he gives Rex a choice: He can take a sleeping pill and when he awakes he will experience exactly what Saskia did, finally getting an answer to that which has vexed him for years.  Or he can refuse, and Lemorne will return him home unharmed and he'll never know the truth.  Rex points out that if Saskia's dead, it means that he'll essentially be killing himself and Lemorne offers no argument, leaving the decision squarely in Rex's hands.  Earlier Rex describes a dream in which he's presented with the opportunity to learn the truth, noted in the pullquote above.  It's Schrodinger's Cat personified, and when Lemorne gives him the chance to play the scenario out for real, Rex lives up to his word.  He takes the drug and wakes up in a coffin, buried alive while Lemorne goes on living his life with little regret and nobody the wiser.

The American version got a lot of shit for changing the ending - from what I gather, Kiefer Sutherland still gets buried alive, but his new girlfriend Nancy Travis tracks him down and eventually saves him from Jeff Bridges, who looks from the trailer to be doing some really strange character work here.  In a way it's hardly surprising that the American producers opted to shift the drama from existential to physical in nature, along with the bad guy eventually getting some form of punishment.  What is interesting is that Sluizer actually filmed a similar ending for the Dutch original, but never used it.  I suppose he wanted to know how audiences would have reacted to that version of the story, and when he was given the opportunity to find out five years later, he took it.  As with Rex, the results were disappointing to say the least.

But sometimes, you just need to know.

What's The Connection? - Thankfully The Vanishing doesn't have much in common with A Serbian Film's more grotesque particulars.  But each feature a character whose lover has gone missing, and each would be better off not knowing the truth as to why.

Up Next - The Disappearance Of Alice Creed.

Title: The Vanishing
Director: George Sluizer
Starring: Bernard-Peirre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege, Gwen Eckhaus
Year Of Release: 1988
Viewing Method: Amazon Instant Watch

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