JOPLIN, Mo. —
“The Vanishing” didn’t seem very scary to me at first glance. I admit I was drawn into the story, and I could easily appreciate the film’s unusual structure, but when it was over I felt robbed of the “gut churning and shattering climax” all the press I read on the film had hyped so much.
But then the story began to haunt my dreams. And the more I thought of it, the scarier it got. Until now, weeks after that first viewing, I am convinced that “The Vanishing” is one of the most diabolical and disturbing movies I have ever seen.
A young Dutch couple named Rex and Saskia, on vacation in France, make a routine stop at a gas station for rest and refreshment. Saskia enters the station to use the restroom and buy a drink — and never returns.
Rex first grows impatient and then begins to panic. Nobody saw Saskia leave the station, and those that remember seeing her at all don’t recall anything suspicious. And yet she is gone, utterly vanished.
After years of nagging wonder and very public pleas for any information regarding the case, Saskia’a abductor reaches out to Rex and makes him an offer he cannot possibly refuse.
This simple plot, reminiscent of Hitchcock, is merely the framework for a very ingenious film. In fact, “The Vanishing” almost seems to undermine its own suspense at every turn, revealing early on who the abductor is, and lavishing almost half the movie on the fine details of the original abduction plot.
We see the abductor, a modest, affable French family man and teacher named Raymond, going about his daily business. He is a pleasant, utterly forgettable type of person harboring a diseased mind and a hideous secret unfathomable even to those closest to him.
And this is where the film draws its true power.
By focusing on the seeming normalcy of the abductor, the film hits far closer to home than most will be comfortable with. We are used to thrilling to the relative safety of larger-than-life cinematic monsters, or at least social outcasts so bleak and awkward in their loathing that we feel confident we could have spotted them a mile away.
But Raymond has no tells and gives no signs. Even his family has no idea what lurks within his eyes. Raymond could be anyone you know, and that makes him truly terrifying.
As we watch Raymond clumsily work through several iterations of his scheme, we realize the overwhelming role that chance plays in the story and, by extension, real life. Regardless of how much planning is involved, the events that transpire to allow the titular vanishing to take place are completely out of the hands of all involved.
If Rex and Saskia had arrived at the gas station five minutes earlier or later, things could have turned out completely different. How many times have you driven yourself mad with such thoughts?
Even though we can tell Rex and Raymond are drawing inevitably closer in their game of cat and mouse, their meeting and the movie’s powerhouse final act surprise as much for the way things retain a calm, dispassionate tone than for what is actually revealed.
Raymond has the answers that Rex and the audience so desperately want, and we have no choice but to endure his obvious enjoyment of that power in hopes that he will deliver. By the time the credits roll, we are left with the realization that the ending is both inevitable and exactly what most of us would have done in the same situation. It’s a disturbing, powerful mix.
“The Vanishing” features stellar, believable performances, and the direction of Dutchman George Sluizer is fluid and organic. Sluizer had worked in the movies for decades prior to making “The Vanishing,” and one gets the feeling that it may be the apex of his creative vision.
An inevitable American remake starring Kiefer Sutherland followed, and Sluizer was again allowed to direct, but the requisite Hollywood ending all but destroyed the story’s bleak, realistic vision. The foreign language original is the way to go.
Mark Schuster is the assistant circulation supervisor at the Joplin Public Library.