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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Vanishing' a Chiller With a Thriller of a Villain

February 05, 1993|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Psychological thrillers are only as effective as their villains, and "The Vanishing" (citywide) serves up one hell of a specimen. Barney Cousins is his name and, as played by Jeff Bridges, he is a much too believable maniac, oozing a kind of bumbling menace that is half-calculated, half-haphazard and totally chilling.

Most thrillers either hide the miscreant's identity until the last possible moment (witness "Jennifer Eight") or else, like "Basic Instinct" or "Body of Evidence," play wearying "is she or isn't she" games with an increasingly exasperated audience.

Films with exceptional villains played by top-drawer actors, however, have the luxury of showing that part of their hand right off the bat. To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, the clear master of the genre, the suspense of when something will happen is a much more effective audience tool than the simplistic surprise of whodunit. "Silence of the Lambs" used Anthony Hopkins this way to great effect, and "The Vanishing" does the same with Bridges.

Perhaps because playing this kind of creepy sociopath is a departure even from the villain he played in "Jagged Edge," Bridges has brought all of his considerable skill to bear here. His Barney is a college chemistry teacher in the Pacific Northwest, a loving father and faithful husband, a man you could pass on the street without feeling in mortal danger.

But you would feel something odd, because much of Barney is just the slightest bit off center. There is a stiffness to his walk, his hair is unnecessarily unkempt, his voice an unnerving monotone marked by an untraceable accent. And the indefinable smugness hovering around his blank cow-like face, the way he tells his daughter "romance has to be secret," all make you wonder just what this person might be capable of. And therein lies the tale.

Barney is the first person we see when "The Vanishing" opens and the film is but a few minutes old before we realize that what we are watching is a man rehearsing first how to lure someone into his car and then how to use a bottle of chloroform to knock them out and complete an abduction.

Completely unaware of Barney's existence are Jeff Harriman (Kiefer Sutherland) and his girlfriend, Diane Shaver (Sandra Bullock). On an abortive bicycling vacation, they have a fight after running out of fuel in a claustrophobic tunnel, during which Jeff stalks out and abandons her to look for gas.

When he returns and they make up at a nearby rest stop, Diane forces him to swear never to leave her again, "till death do us part." Then she saunters off to buy some drinks and Jeff amuses himself in the parking lot, waiting for her to return. But she never does.

Though we have seen Barney lurking around the service center, we do not see Diane actually disappear, we do not know exactly what happened at that moment or afterward. What we do know, and what Jeff feels instinctively, is that something has definitely gone wrong. Naturally, we want to find out what that something is and, in a cleverly parallel emotion, the audience's desire for definitive knowledge becomes a total obsession for Jeff.

As played by Kiefer Sutherland in one of his more interesting roles, Jeff is a combination of mania and weakness. Quickly the scene shifts to three years after Diane's disappearance, and it becomes clear that Jeff has been stubbornly searching for her for all this time, losing his job and just about his mind in the process.

Yet at the same time Jeff gives off a feeling of ineffectiveness, of being confused and desperate and in need of a guiding hand. His plight gets the attention of Rita (a strong performance by Nancy Travis), a feisty waitress who seems to be attracted to his helplessness as much as anything else. Yet even she cannot break Jeff's mental tailspin, and she meets an even greater challenge when his rigid refusal to forget prompts Barney to make an unscheduled entrance into both of their lives.

A nifty cat-and-mouse thriller with lots of twists up its sleeve, "The Vanishing" (rated R for terror and violence and for language) is told with a leanness and economy that benefits from the fact that its Dutch director, George Sluizer, is literally making this film for the second time.

The original "Vanishing" was directed by Sluizer in the Netherlands in 1988 and gained some cult attention in this country. Screenwriter Todd Graff wrote the current Americanized version, which makes considerable and not unexpected concessions to the tastes of a mass domestic audience but still manages to be disturbing and surprising. Everyone concerned ought to thank Jeff Bridges, clearly the villain to have when you're only having one.

'The Vanishing'

Jeff Bridges: Barney

Kiefer Sutherland: Jeff

Nancy Travis: Rita

Sandra Bullock: Diane

A Morra, Brezner, Steinberg & Tenenbaum Production, released by 20th Century Fox. Director George Sluizer. Producers Larry Brezner, Paul Schiff. Executive producer Pieter Jan Brugge and Lauren Weissman. Screenplay by Todd Graff. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. Editor Bruce Green. Costumes Durinda Wood. Music Jerry Goldsmith. Production design Jeannine C. Oppewall. Art director Steve Wolff. Set designer Richard Yanez. Set decorator Anne Ahrens. Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (terror and violence and for language).

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