Sluizer: The Vanishing (1993)

With the 1993 version of The Vanishing, George Sluizer remade his 1988 Dutch classic – this time with an American cast and for an American audience. The plot remains just the same, and just as terrifying on its own terms – a young couple, Jeff Harriman, played by Kiefer Sutherland, and Diane Shaver, played by Sandra Bullock, are taking a holiday when they pull into a service station. In this case, Jeff and Diane are en route from Seattle to Mount St. Helens, where they’re hoping to get their faltering romance back on track. Diane goes to the bathroom, Jeff waits in the car – and never sees her again. Despite the enormous number of people milling in and out of the service station, nobody has any recollection of seeing Diane. Years pass, and Jeff gets into another relationship, with Rita Baker, played by Nancy Travis, only for the killer, Barney Cousins, played by Jeff Bridges, to get in touch with an unusual proposition – to find out what happened to Diane, Jeff has to endure the same thing himself.  

Sluizer’s original film played as a continutation of The Adventure, Michelangelo Antonioni’s groundbreaking film about a woman who goes missing on an Italian island. That film starts off with a missing person, and expands into a more emergent apprehension of postmodern space as the various characters try to track this woman down. In the original version of The Vanishing, postmodern space has caught up to this New Wave vision, and the woman goes missing in what Gilles Deleuze described as an any-place-whatever – a highway petrol station, devoid of any instrinsic identity of its own, and populated entirely by transients, people moving through. The American version expands further on that petrol station, now presenting us with a honeycomb of petrol stations, roadside diners and other amenities – a networked stop, strung between two huge mountains like a cable, a conduit or a communicative channel.

As with the original, we meet Barney, the perpetrator, from the outset, and once again his motivation is spatial – a need to contain and neutralise a postmodern landscape that he can’t comprehend. When he eventually meets up with Jeff later in the film, Barney describes how his first understanding of his own sociopathy took place in terms of space as well. When he was a young boy, he stood on the edge of his balcony, and jumped off, simply because he could. Later in life, he repeated this motion, leaping off a hotel balcony, and into a pool, to save a drowning toddler, as his family watched on approvingly. In this later case, Barney explains, he wasn’t any more motivated by ethical considerations than in the first example. Instead, both balconies presented him with the prospect of “infinity” as a distinct space, a glimpse of the void, prompting a lifelong obsession with sociopathically orchestrating space.

Of course, this is what prompted the original film’s infamous ending, which is replicated here, albeit with a last-minute Hollywood tweak. After agreeing to Barney’s conditions, Jeff allows himself to be drugged, and wakes up, forty minutes later, in a coffin underground, realising that Diane was also buried alive within an hour of being taken at the petrol station. In other words, Barney responds to the amorphous sprawl of postmodern space with a radical gesture of spatial containment, an act of repression, not unlike Julianne Moore’s character in Safe, directed by Todd Haynes a few years later. Even as he attempts to neutralise the sprawl of the petrol station, Jeff also condenses and compresses one of the key elements of postmodern space – sudden and inexplicable transitions from one space to the next. The horror of the film lies in this transition, as Nancy, and then Jeff, go from a petrol station, to live burial, in the space of forty minutes, with nothing to orient or explain that traumatic shift.

When we meet Barney, in the opening scenes, he’s obsessed above all with the spatial and temporal dimensions of his crime. We see him rehearsing different ways to drag women into his car, and subjecting himself to a dose of chloroform to see how long he remains unconscious, and so calculate the radius he can operate in around his lake house, which forms his base of operations. Gradually, his daughter and wife come into the picture, and they’re both folded into this spatial scheme as well. When Barney’s daughter asks him how many starts make up the sky, he explains the meaning of infinity, at least as he understands it. The next day, he tells his wife that restoring this cabin has given him a new spatial confidence, a new awareness of the boundaries and thresholds of his life. Lakeside cabins were a kind of apex mise-en-scene in 90s cinema, synecdoches for the good life at its whitest and most wholesome, so there’s an eerie subversion in seeing this one used as the starting-point for a sociopathic spatial exercise, especially since it’s easily the most idyllic site in the entire film.

This opening focus on the cabin quickly gives way to a jarring sense of spatial dissolution, as we meet Jeff and Diane by way of a sweeping aerial shot over the charred slopes of Mount St. Helens, accompanied by gurgling synth tones that recall the credit sequence of The Shining. Our sense of unease is compounded further when Jeff and Diane’s car runs out of gas in the most precarious space in this vast landscape – a narrow road tunnel, with the mountain on one side and sheer cliffs down to a roiling river on the other. Their sense of precarity peaks when an enormous truck almost barrels into their parked car and only overtakes them at the last moment, but this is just the most extreme expression of a more pervasive sense that space itself is overtaking them, exceeding their capacities to process it.

There’s a brief tease here, when Jeff goes to find gas, and returns to an empty car, but he finds Diane waiting for him at the other end of the tunnel, ready to get back in the passenger seat. The precarity lingers, however, peaking when they pull into the next petrol station complex, flanked on either side by mountains. There are so many people around here that Diane almost walks straight into a car as she waves back to Jeff – the last time he ever sees her alive, as Barney now enters the frame, lingering in the background. From this point, we experience the case in real time with Barney, as he searches for Diane, waits for the petrol station to close, and finally returns to Seattle. We have no idea what happened to Diane – all that we have is the station, which exudes the primal power of a site where someone vanished.

This is presented as exceptional, but it’s also part and parcel of Pacific Northwest folklore – the precarity of commuter space in rural Washington – given the unusual proliferation of serial killers in this part of the United States. Barney already feels like Bundy before we see the Washington plates, and Sluizer is clearly drawing on Bundy, who was first apprehended in a service station, in this shift to a Pacific Northwest context. Like Bundy, Barney uses a cast to lure women into his car, and later in the film, when Rita poses as a potential victim, she dresses herself in a long brown wig with hair parted in the middle – one of Bundy’s triggers.

For a moment, it looks like we might stayed poised in the immediate aftermath of the vanishing – the days and weeks when the horrific contingency of it all really sinks in. As Jeff watches Diane walk to the bathroom, he makes a Star Trek sign to her, and she makes the same sign back, evoking the split in spatial schemes and timelines that make missing persons cases so haunting and resonant. For a brief moment, they share the same space and time, and in the next moment their timelines diverge so rapidly and drastically that they may as well be communicating to each other across distant galaxies, so unknowable is Diane’s fate.  

Yet Sluizer takes an unusual approach here, as he does in the original, jumping forward three years to focus on the long-term aftermath of the vanishing. We meet Jeff again cruising the highway between Seattle and Mount St. Helens, in search of a trace of Diane, and on this trip he finds it in the form of Rita, the waitress he meets along the road. Rita quickly becomes a part of Jeff’s life, leaving her job to move into his Seattle apartment, but she never feels like anything more than a refraction of Diane’s disappearance, even though Travis is easily the most charismatic presence in the film. Although three years pass, then, Jeff never traverses that primal moment of vanishing, which makes the film feel like it’s processing the long-term legacy of Ted Bundy as well: “It’s weird how things fade away.” “It’s not faded.” In 1993, several years had passed since Bundy’s execution, and a generation had elapsed since his capture – he was poised between living memory and cult infamy, not quite solidified as a cultural touchstone, and the film feels suspended in that same murky middle ground as well.

It’s only at this point that we discover that Jeff is a novelist, and only then during a meeting in which his publisher suggests that he write a true crime memoir about Diane’s vanishing. For most of the second act, Jeff reflects the film’s own uncertainty about how to produce a narrative out of a vanishing, which feels even more urgently like an attempt to wrest a linear trajectory out of postmodern space, some five years after the original, and in a glossier American context. Jeff works on this project within the sleekness of his apartment, the most overt postmodern space in the film, clad with Ed Ruscha posters, even as it seems to be situated in the neighbourhood where Bundy targeted his earliest victims as well. Over time, the vanishing gives way to a more emergent sense of cyberspace – cracking the code of Diane’s disappearance segues into the film’s efforts to crack into a more dispersed digital ambience, most notably when Rita rearranges “Diane Travers” to come up with “Are Vanished,” the password to Jeff’s true crime manuscript, which he has kept secret from her.

Yet these postmodern touches are ultimately unconvincing, since The Vanishing is a story that works much better with Dutch austerity than with Hollywood realism as it stood at the start of the 90s. Initially, the script is full of odd ellipses and atonal aporia, places where it feels characters could or should vanish, but these quickly distend into a more pervasive sense of incompetence. The pacing, tone and dialogue are all off, and the story is driven by totally implausible interactions and plot points, as what seemed visionary in the original quickly turns contrived here. That’s not to say that it’s a bad film, or that Sluizer is a bad director, but that Hollywood realism as he presents it is pretty resistant to the trope of the vanishing and the prospect of the serial killer – at least when it’s delivered as austerely as the script would have it here. Part of the awkwardness is that Sluizer has to arrange things so it can all end (somewhat) happily, which magnifies the plot contrivances until the eeriness is nearly gone.

In particular, Sluizer finds it hard to strike a balance between the serial killer as an anomalous figure, and the serial killer as an unremarkable figure, as occurred so eerily in the original. In fact, this falls so short of the original that Bridges appears to be putting on a Dutch accent, as if willing Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu’s presence straight into this Pacific Northwest backdrop. Uncertain of how to make the serial killer sufficiently invisibile, Sluizer unfortunately takes the opposite tack, presenting us with a hyper-visible killer – and worse, a hyper-audible killer – in the closing act, which basically consists of an interminable monologue in which Barney explains his motives and actions to Jeff, over and over again, en route to the service station.

This is serial killing as mansplaining, and creates an irresolvable paradox: the horror stems from a pregnant absence, but the killer is ludicrously present, and tediously expository, for most of the third act. Among other things, this doesn’t play to Bridges strengths, since he’s a comic actor at heart, his eyes always lit up with some great cosmic joke. That doesn’t mean he can’t shine in dramatic roles, but that his serious parts always exude this same sense of flirtation with the universe – precisely the same feeling for play, you’d imagine, that made Bundy so alluring to his potential victims in the first place. Bridges as Bundy is quite an intriguing prospect, but the film doesn’t go there, doubling down and making Barney unbearably humorous, and almost unwatchable, by the closing scenes. He’s a chemistry professor by day, but he feels more like a lecturer in Continental Philosophy, full of half-baked turgid abstractions that he flings out at Jeff as the film jettisons any compelling sense of place.

By the closing scene, Sluizer all but gives up, retreating from serial killer imagery back to slasher imagery – a showdown with a knife in a cabin by a lake. It all ends with Jeff slamming a shovel into Barney’s mouth, to shut him up as much as anything else, and while there’s certainly a powerful critique of American family values here, even the film isn’t that interested in pursuing it by the end. And, to some extent, I felt the same way about the original film too – the premise is so extraordinary, so prescient and so frightening that all you need to  to be execute it perfectly is the acute sense of space that so many directors carry with them in their very bones. In the end, I don’t think Sluizer has that instinct, and while the novelty and austerity of the original works against his shortcomings, the lack of a profound spatial imagination is quite naked here, in a film whose flashes of genius never quite come together,a film whose obsession with space never quite congeals into a comprehensive spatial signature.

About Billy Stevenson (704 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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