Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees has seen lots of things vanish—car keys, socks, entire years of her life—but she lacks Kiefer Sutherland's sheer bloody-minded persistence in tracking them down.
"It's like you're my laboratory rat. I provided the materials; you built a cage. Only now you can't escape what you've constructed."—Barney (Jeff Bridges)
When Dutch filmmaker George Sluizer remade his own successful foreign thriller The Vanishing (1988) with American actors, critics were not kind. The 1993 remake, also titled The Vanishing, was lambasted as being too American, too commercial, with none of the subtlety of the original. Its dismal ranking today on the Rotten Tomatoes website's Tomatometer reflects the widespread contempt that greeted it.
However, there are some dissenting voices. Rotten Tomatoes also quotes critic Ken Hanke as saying, "Sluizer's Americanized remake of his own film is more commercial, but, to me, also more appealing"—and I'm in complete accord with Hanke. Having seen both versions during their initial theatrical releases, I found that the remake was more satisfying in terms of story and resolution, gave me a character I could really root for, and lingered in my mind far more than the original. Fans of the original may well find that they are not in sympathy with the 1993 version's greater accessibility and distinctly different ending, but in terms of pure entertainment, I find the remake to be the more enjoyable and satisfying film.
Facts of the Case
Barney (Jeff Bridges, Seabiscuit) is in training. Not for an athletic event or a new job, but for an abduction. He practices administering chloroform and accosting young women on the street. He has a plan.
Jeff (Kiefer Sutherland, Dark City) and Diane (Sandra Bullock, Miss Congeniality) know nothing of Barney and his designs. They're on vacation together, absorbed in their own squabbles and reconciliations, and never anticipating that a stranger may alter the course of their lives. When they stop at a gas station and Diane disappears without a trace, Jeff's life is forever altered. Just as powerful as his grief at losing Diane is the agony of not knowing what happened to her.
That gnawing frustration drives Jeff through the next three years, in which he casts aside the rest of his life in a search for Diane—or at least for an explanation for her disappearance. Now a mere shell of a person, he catches the eye of compassionate waitress Rita (Nancy Travis, So I Married an Axe Murderer), who takes him under her wing and into her heart. But any future they may have together is threatened by the shadow of the vanished Diane, and when Barney steps forward to offer Jeff answers, Jeff is unable to turn him away, even though the answers may come at a devastating price.
We've become accustomed to cat-and-mouse thrillers, but The Vanishing still stands as a strong example of the genre. The plot is engrossing, the tension palpable, the dialogue credible, and the antagonist truly disturbing. As Barney, Jeff Bridges gives us a memorable and effective villain, all the more distinctive for his rumpled, comfortable exterior and his mild manner. This isn't a vision of cackling madness cloaked in niceness; rather, Barney looks like what he is, a slightly eccentric chemistry professor who tends to view life from an intellectual rather than an emotional standpoint. He is sufficiently at a remove from other people, even his adoring daughter (Maggie Linderman, in a winning performance), to be able to use them as subjects in his own experiments, and that makes him not only dangerous but truly chilling. Bridges maintains a delicate balance in his portrayal of Barney, hovering just this side of banal while clearly delineating sociopathic tendencies through his deliberate, accented speech patterns and watchful demeanor.
The other cast members are likewise strong. Kiefer Sutherland provides an effective contrast to Bridges as the erstwhile normal guy who threatens to wreck his own life through his obsession with his girlfriend's fate. He plumbs the emotional depths but avoids histrionics, so he is always believable in his suffering. In a small role, the always enjoyable Park Overall (The Critic) adds humor and texture. In retrospect, one of the biggest surprises in the casting is that Sandra Bullock plays the relatively small role of Diane; had this film been made just a few years later, she would certainly have had the star power to snag the larger role. I'm glad that she didn't, however; although Bullock is endearing as ever, Nancy Travis is simply perfect as Rita. Her performance has a world-weary quality, a mingling of vulnerability and a fierce survival instinct. Her Rita is the most appealing character in the film, and offers a whole new perspective onto the protagonist's obsession.
Of course, as good as the cast and other elements are, there is still the lingering shadow of the original film, widely touted as being superior. I think the truth is that the two versions have different goals; the first is more philosophical in its focus, forcing us to confront the devastating nature of curiosity, while the second looks more at the dynamics of relationships bedeviled by obsession and distrust—it's a bit like Hitchcock's Rebecca, only with a spunkier second Mrs. DeWinter. Perhaps because of this difference in focus, the original Vanishing left me depressed, indignant, and unsatisfied. Yes, it ended with an emotional wallop, but it made me want to wallop back, even if it was vicariously. Evidently Sluizer, or the studio, suspected that others would feel the same if the ending was preserved intact in the American version, for when he revisited the material, Sluizer continued the story past the original ending and created more story, offering a chance for the action to resolve itself differently. This added material is precisely what many critics objected to as being too commercial and "American"—that is, crude and unsophisticated—but it creates a more satisfying plot resolution as far as I'm concerned. One of the main reasons I go to movies is that they can show us justice being done, wrongs being righted, villainy being confronted—things that all too often don't happen in real life. In movies we get to vicariously fight back against the things or people that do the dirty on us. That's what I felt was missing from the original film, and that's what Sluizer gets right the second time around.
In addition, the new version offers us a strong new character to do some of this fighting back: Nancy Travis's Rita. Smart, determined, persistent, and willing to fight for her happiness and that of the messed-up guy she loves, Rita is the other chief advantage that the American film boasts over its predecessor. Perhaps I respond to this character particularly strongly because she offers a surrogate for me, as a female viewer, that the first film didn't provide—but on the other hand, who can resist seeing her pit her wits and cunning against Barney himself? Rita is not a mere love interest but a heroine, and her presence brings a refreshing jolt of practicality that contrasts with the mind games that preoccupy the male characters. Again, this character makes the film more "American"—her presence means less philosophizing and more butt kicking—but she really makes the film work for me.
Video quality for this release is respectable, with fairly minor levels of grain and speckling, and the flipper disc offers both widescreen and fullscreen formats. Some of the darker images seem a little bit soft, but brighter scenes are admirably clear, and color is true. This is not a visually spectacular film, but there are no glaring flaws in the transfer to distract one from the story, either. The surround audio track is likewise clear and attractive without being overly impressive; dialogue is mixed a touch lower than the music, but Jerry Goldsmith's score is effectively rendered. The only extra is the original trailer, which, in the tradition of trailers, gives far too much away—so do not watch it before viewing the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Although I support the decision to change the ending in the remake, the new ending does leave a few small threads dangling. There are repercussions to this denouement that I felt should have been explored, and the fact that the film ignores them makes it a bit more simplistic than perhaps it should be. I can't go into further details without spoiling the plot, so I'll content myself with noting that there are more consequences to the characters' actions than the screenplay acknowledges, and that, I think, is a weakness.
Even apart from the differences between original and remake, another factor may well dim one's appreciation for the 1993 Vanishing. In the decade since its release, filmgoers have seen thrillers escalate enormously in their daring and their use of shock tactics. After The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, The Vanishing can't help but seem tame, just as Jeff Bridges's creepy embodiment of sociopathology seems almost cuddly next to villains we've met in the interim, from Hannibal Lecter to Carl Stargher of The Cell. It shows just how much films have changed over the last 11 years that The Vanishing received an R rating, when today, with the excision of a couple of cuss words and a glimpse of gore, it could be aired on television without raising an eyebrow. Indeed, its restraint may make it feel like a TV-movie to some jaded viewers.
Nevertheless, since the real power of The Vanishing comes from the development (or deterioration) of characters and their twisted interactions, it's a film that doesn't need the baroque trappings of other thrillers. The viewer's enjoyment of the film will probably depend a great deal on the expectations he or she brings to it. If you approach The Vanishing anticipating a decent "B" movie, you'll probably be much more satisfied with it than if you expect the kind of baroque, Grand Guignol effects of more recent thrillers.
It's likely that the two camps—original versus remake—will never see eye to eye, but surely the world is big enough to comfortably hold two versions of The Vanishing. If you like the original film, stick with it; you shouldn't feel compelled to view the American version. But if you were dissatisfied with the original or simply want a solid, suspenseful flick that will entertain you and get your adrenaline pumping, by all means check out the 1993 Vanishing. Moreover, fans of Kiefer Sutherland's work in the acclaimed series 24 will enjoy seeing him in training for the demands of that fraught performance here.
Sluizer is acquitted of the charge of spoiling his 1988 film by remaking it. Fox is commended for releasing this critically maligned title on DVD, even in a barebones edition. Court's adjourned—and jurors are warned to be wary of strangers at gas stations.
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