There are two movies with this title. This one is the original Franco-Dutch version from 1988 that got excellent reviews. The other version of The Vanishing is an American remake from 1993 that got below average reviews (though it was from the same director, George Sluizer).
I’m perplexed as to whether I ever saw the American version. The whole time I was watching this I was remembering a very, very vaguely similar kidnapping movie that I could have sworn I saw on cable with a certain person that I only knew for a few months in 1994. (I distinctly remember the comments we made to each other about how bad it was.) So I was thinking that was it, except I later looked it up, and definitely the movie I was remembering is Breakdown, which is from 1997, making it impossible I could have seen it with the person I thought I saw it with. So is it possible I saw the American version of The Vanishing with her? I suppose, but I don’t remember it at all.
My guess is I did indeed see the American version of The Vanishing with her in 1994, we both thought it was really lame, I later saw Breakdown, and in my memory I ran the experiences together with the better movie that made the bigger impression dominating.
Anyway, I had the sense all along that I knew where this movie was going, and since Breakdown does indeed go to (very roughly) the same place, ironically my error didn’t lead to my being surprised at the end.
It’s hard to say what I want to say about this movie without telling most of the story, so spoilers ahead.
A Dutch couple is traveling by car in France. They bicker a bit, make up, stop occasionally for gas or snacks, chat, etc. The woman walks into a crowded convenience store while the man waits by the car a distance away. He takes a random photo of their car. She never returns. He discovers that the photo has what looks like her leaving the store with someone, but they’re just specks. The people in the store vaguely remember her and think maybe she was talking to a man or left with a man, but can give no more solid information than that.
Three years later he’s still putting up flyers and paying for advertisements and television appearances to get information about what happened to her. Whatever police investigation there was apparently didn’t turn up anything. (It may well have been half-hearted, if they thought she just left the guy voluntarily.)
Meanwhile, from early on we’re shown the abductor in separate scenes intercut with the main narrative, so there’s no real suspense as to who did it. He is a bland family man, not visibly evil or crazy. He is shown calmly plotting and rehearsing the abduction.
Ultimately he reveals himself to the man who lost his girlfriend (I think she was a girlfriend rather than wife), telling him that if he allows himself to be drugged, the abductor will duplicate with him exactly what he did with the woman, thereby finally revealing to him what he’s been obsessively trying to find out for years, but otherwise he will never know. After protests and hesitation, the man agrees to this deal.
The structure of the movie is a bit confusing in that there are times you’re not sure whether the scenes are in chronological order, or why you’re seeing certain new people or events that don’t seem to fit the story. I’m not real fond of that kind of artificially generated structural confusion—as opposed to a straightforwardly told story being legitimately complex—but I didn’t hate it here because by the end it’s possible to retroactively make sense of all or most of it.
Probably 20 minutes or so could have been edited out of this movie to improve it. The initial disappearance and the scenes at the end with the man and the abductor together are gripping, and a certain amount of background on the abductor is necessary and worthwhile, but that leaves quite a lot of the movie where not much is happening.
Granted, you can say the suspense is building during those stretches, but to me it slows things down more than it raises the intensity and anticipation. Some of that surely could have been trimmed. Like there’s a whole thing about the man having in the interim acquired a new girlfriend, and how his obsession with the girlfriend who disappeared is adversely affecting this new relationship. But the new girlfriend character isn’t well-developed, and it just feels like filler.
Or, other than making the movie 20 minutes or so shorter, perhaps they could have cut that much out while lengthening by the same amount the more important, more interesting material, like the confrontation between the two men at the end.
The ending is indeed chilling, though it is predictable so it maybe didn’t have quite the impact on me it otherwise would have.
And while the material leading up to the ending is definitely attention-grabbing and satisfying in that it reveals whatever you don’t already know about the abduction, it’s pretty darn implausible if you stop and think about it.
The abductor tells him explicitly that he is a sociopath, and that he had challenged himself to come up with the most horrible thing he could do to a person to see if he’d have the guts to go through with it, and that that’s what he did to the guy’s girlfriend.
Given that, would you agree to have the same thing done to you? “Oh, but he was curious, and he’d been trying to find out for years, and it was an obsession, blah, blah, blah.” OK, but even granting all that, the guy is strongly implying that he murdered the woman, and preceded it with some kind of horrific torture. I don’t care how curious you are, would you prefer being tortured and murdered to not having your curiosity satisfied?
After all, it’s not like he’s saying he’ll torture and murder one of them and let the other go, and the guy is being the hero and agreeing to be the one tortured and murdered. All he’s getting in exchange for being tortured and murdered is the information that that’s what was done to his girlfriend. (Come to think of it, I’m not even sure I’d want that information for free. Would you want to know the specifics of how someone you love was abused before being murdered?)
Furthermore, it also all rests on the assumption that the sociopath is telling the truth. How will the guy really know that what is done to him is what was done to his girlfriend? Heck, he doesn’t even know for sure this guy is the abductor. (He flashes something to him as proof—probably some piece of jewelry she was wearing or something—but someone sufficiently clever could surely fake something like that.) He could be agreeing to be drugged by just some random lunatic who’s sick of seeing him whine about his missing girlfriend on TV.
I know we’re supposed to suspend disbelief for stuff like this, but it would have been more effective if I could have imagined myself in this guy’s shoes, where there was even the slightest chance I’d make the same decisions.
Overall, the suspense is reasonably good though The Vanishing drags in places. The villain is interestingly and chillingly evil. The ending is maybe a little more nightmare-inducing than that of the average thriller. (Though for me, Home Movie is the one that got to me a lot more than this. I was still thinking about that film late at night weeks later. Man that’s a creepy fucking movie.) So there are things keeping me from rating it too high, but I would say The Vanishing deserves a narrow thumbs up.