**½/**** Image A Sound B+
starring Jeff Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland, Nancy Travis, Sandra Bullock
screenplay by Todd Graff, based on the novel The Golden Egg by Tim Krabbé
directed by George Sluizer
***/**** Image A- Sound B
starring George C. Scott, Peter Boyle, Season Hubley, Ilah Davis
written and directed by Paul Schrader
by Bill Chambers 1993 was the year that American remakes of two estimable foreign thrillers became instant poster boys for Hollywood condescension. While John Badham's Point of No Return is every bit as egregious as they said it was (although I prefer its "Cleaner" sequence with Harvey Keitel to Nikita's field test of Jean Reno's Léon persona), George Sluizer's The Vanishing, an Americanization of his own Spoorloos, often stands shoulder-to-shoulder with its forerunner--or is at the very least too provocative in its departures to dismiss out of hand. A lot of people wondered how Sluizer could desecrate what had been the crowning achievement of his career in this way, but what artist wouldn't jump at the chance to view a piece of work through the looking glass without physically altering the original? (A kindred impulse drives novelists to sell the screen rights to their books.) All I can say is that the end result is more seductive than, say, Vanilla Sky, or Christopher Nolan's Insomnia.
A major reason for this is the inspired casting of Jeff Bridges as the heavy. The actor vanishes--appropriately--into the role through a rare concession to showmanship: He puts on a funny voice (I can't be sure, but I think he's imitating Sluizer) and a funny walk (he moves a little like John Hurt's Elephant Man) and generally eschews appeals for our sympathy. Bridges is somehow more compelling (if less accessible) at his most affected--this isn't a "Bridges being Bridges" performance where you marvel that he's convincing as the President even though his demeanour has scarcely changed since the last time you saw him, but it is a veritable hypnotic swirl along the lines of his turn as The Dude in The Big Lebowski. And while the dippy moniker of Bridges's nutty professor, Barney Cousins, is one of those age-old attempts at underlining the camouflaged nature of evil, Bridges plays against such stock ironies: He makes the whole of Barney a façade, so that finally the only person he's fooled into thinking his name belies his nature is himself. Because people hated the movie, they not only underestimated Bridges in it, they also overlooked the justification that Bridges single-handedly brought to changing the bleak ending of Spoorloos, as his Barney is a human adversary from the start, unmistakably less infected by a demonic contagion than Spoorloos' Raymond Lemorne. In short, Barney wants to be the big bad wolf, but he's just a reverie-stricken bedsick grandmother.
The rest of the cast isn't operating at Bridges's level, in the case of Kiefer Sutherland because he never commits to a rhythm, in the case of Nancy Travis because she's channelling Lorraine Bracco. But The Vanishing is brilliantly directed. Consider the set-up for a particularly ingenious shot: Diane Shaver (Sandra Bullock), the girlfriend of Jeff Harriman (Sutherland), has gone missing from a gas station (the titular "vanishing") and Jeff is reporting her disappearance. The attending officer correctly presumes that Jeff and Diane have recently quarrelled, but we know and Jeff knows that any residual anger Diane may have had is a red herring, and he gets in the cop's face about it. Sluizer frames Sutherland in the oddest way here, with the eyeline completely thrown off and the headroom suddenly spacious--which, because we desperately want proper composition restored, communicates that Jeff is agitating the cop by violating his personal space much more effectively than a P.O.V. variation on an extreme close-up would. An image of a literal fly in the ointment casts a similar spell. Were the film not a box-office flop and had Sluizer's reputation not been damaged by the reports of tyranny that leaked from the set of Dark Blood (the movie that River Phoenix was making before he died), it's entirely possible that Sluizer's name would have some synonymity with Hitchcock's by now.
And whatever else you can say about Todd Graff's dumbed-down screenplay (gone is the challenging non-linear structure of Spoorloos), it allows Travis's Rita to blossom as the hero, thus subverting a cinema born of The Searchers--and, by extension, the Orpheus myth and Dante's The Inferno--that marked the resurgence of damsels in distress in contemporary (i.e., postwar) filmmaking. The basic premise of these movies is that a female figure is plucked from the male protagonist's clutches, and the threat that she might be 'tainted' by the whole ordeal looms large over his descent into the underworld to find her. (Madonna/whore tropes: the choice of the film-school generation.) The filmmaker who thinks he's circumvented the objectification of yet another actress by romanticizing her instead (not for nothing do we say "absence makes the heart grow fonder") has in actuality transformed her into a grail object, one whose character awaits the judgment of her saviour. No wonder men are continually drawn to these tales of idealized commitment and compromise.
Taxi Driver screenwriter Paul Schrader listed The Searchers as his ninth favourite film of all-time in SIGHT & SOUND's 2002 poll, and his 1979 Hardcore is probably the most conspicuous refashioning of the picture to date. Parasitic in more ways than one, Hardcore gets under your skin, feeding off your curiosity about the proverbial dark side of the moon. It's also, however riveting, pretty risible at times, especially in its presentation of L.A. as a precursor to Kubrick and Spielberg's Rouge City. Raised Dutch Calvinist and prohibited from going to the cinema until he was well into his teens, Schrader admits that he went through a blue period defined by unhealthy interests in the urban temptations (it was from out of the ashes of this phase that Travis Bickle rose), but Hardcore demonstrates surprisingly little acuity in matters of the sex trade. When Dutch Calvinist Midwesterner Jake VanDorn (a typically enjoyable George C. Scott) insinuates himself into California's hedonist culture in search of his little girl circa the late-'70s (note the exotic dancers with their papier-mâché lightsabers duelling to the tune of "Star Wars Disco"), the Porky Pig cartoon Dough for the Do-Do swims to mind: As they are to real smut peddlers what The Searchers' brown-face extras are to authentic Commanches, the one-dimensional libertines who populate Schrader's L.A. threaten to reduce the contrast between VanDorn and the people he encounters to a daisy chain of funhouse torments.
Where Taxi Driver let apocalyptic New York stand for the world by never venturing outside the confines of the city, Hardcore, by virtue of opening in snowy Grand Rapids, MI (Schrader's birthplace) and having VanDorn's teenage daughter, Kristen (Ilah Davis, in her lone film appearance), drift into porn only after her youth group docks in California, implies that depravity is a contained virus. The most shocking aspect of Hardcore, then, is not any of the seediness it ostensibly exposes (since that can ultimately be avoided), but rather Jake's devotion to his religion--a trait he shares with alarmingly few white characters in the history of American cinema, considering that 76% of the country's population identifies itself as "Christian." (Then again, 100% of Americans go to the bathroom, and that's something you don't see on the silver screen too often, either.) Though Hardcore's so-called gritty images do have the power to disturb, it's because we're intrinsically aware of their psychic scourge on Jake. Too bad Schrader's original ending, a fascinating inversion of Chinatown's, failed to earn the approval of the studio (the film was among the earliest casualties of post-Star Wars commercialism), as it tore down two of Schrader's "golems"--his term for alter egos created to be destroyed (idols for personal demons* that need exorcising, in other words)--instead of the relatively innocent Virgil/Martin Pawley to Jake's Dante/Ethan Edwards, a well-traveled prostitute named Niki (Season Hubley). The new coda has the nerve to say "you win some, you lose some," although ain't that the god's honest truth.
The Vanishing and Hardcore arrive on bare bones discs from Fox and Columbia TriStar, respectively. The Vanishing sports a glittering anamorphic widescreen version matted to 1.83:1 and a flipside fullscreen alternative that just plain sucks by comparison: Obviously taken from a much older master, it's garish and flecked with print debris. Remixed with verve in 5.1 Dolby Digital, the film nevertheless betrays its pre-digital roots thanks to a distinct lack of discrete effects; The Vanishing's spoiler-plagued theatrical trailer rounds out each side of the platter. Hardcore shines up like a new penny on DVD, the 1.85:1 anamorphic image giving off a freshness up to and following the film's San Francisco section. (Either the telecine operators botched those scenes or Schrader bleach-bypassed them for aesthetic purposes--it's hard to tell.) If the Dolby 2-channel mono mix nicely reproduces Jack Nietzsche's electronic score, what I had really hoped to hear was another of Schrader's confessional commentaries. Alas, the only extra is a block of trailers for Big Fish, Secret Window, and The Opposite of Sex.
Love the revised artwork for both discs, but something tells me that a Sony employee mistook that gorgeous creature standing behind Scott on the cover of Hardcore for the actress playing his daughter.
*Schrader is obviously conflicted about his church upbringing in Hardcore. On the one hand, not seeing any movies growing up prevented nostalgia from corrupting his taste in them. On the other hand, such a sheltered existence enhanced the flavour of every piece of forbidden fruit that surrounded him in adulthood.