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‘The Vanishing’ (U.S.) (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 05, 1993

George Sluizier's "The Vanishing," with Jeff Bridges, Nancy Travis and Kiefer Sutherland, is a remake of George Sluizier's "The Vanishing," starring Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Johanna Ter Steege and Gene Bervoets. It's also a case study in how Hollywood can make a complete mess out of what was previously a marvelous film.

That may seem like a banal observation; aren't American adaptations of foreign films widely perceived to be far less worthy than the originals? But very few remakes have the same director at the helm, or an artist of such promise. The original version of "The Vanishing" was made in 1988 in the Netherlands -- Sluizier is Dutch -- and was lauded in 1991, during its American release, as one of the year's biggest surprises.

This incarnation, despite Sluizier's presence, is pure Hollywood, right down to the appalling new ending. It's not so much that this remake is terrible; as Hollywood thrillers go it's expertly executed and, for most of the film, surprisingly engaging. It's just that a story, which earlier was so chillingly original, has been transformed into an assembly-line item.

The details of the original yarn are followed for much of this version except that this time the psychological motives, which were previously subtle and suggestive, are now over-emphasized and exaggerated. When the picture begins, Jeff (Sutherland) and his girlfriend, Diane (Sandra Bullock), are on a biking vacation near Mount St. Helens when they pull into a rest stop for a break. While Diane goes inside to the restroom, Jeff waits for her return. And waits. And waits. And waits.

Diane vanishes without a trace, leaving Jeff in agony over what's happened to her. Jeff doesn't even know if she's dead or alive, and three years later, he finds himself still tormented by her memory, still putting up posters with her picture, hoping that someone somewhere has seen her.

The audience knows, of course, what Jeff cannot -- that Diane has been the subject of a psychopath's experiment in random evil. For Barney (Bridges), a consummately mundane chemistry professor with a wife and a young daughter and an utterly unremarkable life, Diane herself is virtually irrelevant; any woman would suit the purposes of his unthinkable plan. And it's part of the movie's bizarre power -- even in this bastardized version -- that this specific individual means so much to Jeff and so little to Barney.

The seemingly absent-minded professor, who by his clumsy, buffoonish outward behavior conforms to every condition of normality, is the most peculiar, most lethal sort of madman -- a methodical, totally amoral sort of beast. He kills not for the thrill of it, but as a sort of existential philosophical experiment. He kills, in slow easy stages, and subjects his victims to the most terrifying torture, not out of anger or some perverse sexual need, but simply because his thesis calls for it.

Bridges is thrilling playing this immensely unexciting man. Barney is a slouching, plodding nebbish -- about the last kind of man we'd expect Bridges to play. But working against type here allows Bridges to test different skills. He's played villains before, and even losers, but here he's playing a deeply introverted, secretive man, a man who lives in a universe all his own. Bridges gives his voice just the hint of an accent (is it Dutch?) and vanishes inside Barney's all-encompassing disguise of an ordinary husband and father. Jack the Ripper in Hush Puppies.

When Bridges is on screen, working out his kidnapping lines, timing the effects of the chloroform he uses to subdue his victims, the movie is oddly absorbing, if for no other reason than for the morbid comedy Bridges uses to season his lines. The film's other characters, though, aren't nearly as interesting. Somehow Jeff's obsession with Diane is never fully convincing; Sutherland makes him appear far too shallow for this kind of all-consuming passion. He plays Jeff as if he were Hamlet, stuck forever somewhere between despair and action.

Rita (Nancy Travis) is the salt-of-the-earth type who is supposed to help Jeff get over Diane's loss. And because she's scrappy and doesn't know how to give up, she's precisely the woman for the job. Travis is the performer most seriously damaged by the Hollywood expansion, mainly because she is the main agent of the film's atrociously wrongheaded new ending. If Sluizier's earlier version left us feeling skin-crawlly and trapped, gasping for air, this retooling merely leaves us stupefied, gasping for relief.

"The Vanishing" is rated R for violence.

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