Loss is painful, but it can be endured. When somebody you dearly love dies, the grieving process goes on for a long time (and a small part of you may never stop grieving), but that ache does eventually subside. It’s a dramatically different case, though, if you don’t know what happened. Uncertainty will haunt you forever—ask anyone with a child who’s appeared on a milk carton, or even the families of the 9/11 victims whose remains were never positively identified by DNA testing. George Sluizer’s brilliantly unsettling 1988 anti-thriller The Vanishing—which is craftily getting a Blu-ray upgrade from Criterion at the same time that Gone Girl is a national conversation piece—burrows deep into that maddening epistemic void. It’s a horror movie of a very unique sort, in which the killer is less terrifying than is the absence of information.
Adapted from Tim Krabbé’s novella The Golden Egg, The Vanishing (a much better title) begins roughly the same way that Gone Girl does, with a woman who mysteriously goes missing. While driving through France on holiday, a Dutch couple, Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna Ter Steege), stop at a gas station, where Saskia heads to the attached mini-mart to buy some snacks. She never returns. Rex spends years fruitlessly searching for her, in part because he keeps receiving postcards from someone claiming to be her abductor. Meanwhile, the movie has already revealed the sociopath to be Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a mild-mannered husband and father who’s shown in flashbacks making preparations for a random kidnapping. Eventually, Raymond meets with the still-distraught Rex and offers him a strange deal: Rex can learn what happened to Saskia, but only by agreeing to experience exactly what she did.
Structurally, The Vanishing and Gone Girl are quite similar: Both films feature an abrupt mid-film reveal that answers questions an ordinary thriller would have postponed for the climax. Here, however, the sudden shift in perspective only partially reveals what was taking place offscreen earlier in the movie, intensifying the itch. Ter Steege makes Saskia such a vivid presence in the opening scenes that her absence is palpably felt; it’s easy to empathize with Rex’s refusal to give up, even after he’s moved on to another girlfriend (Gwen Eckhaus). It’s even possible to identify to some degree with a curiosity—and a need for closure—so overpowering that surrendering oneself to a madman seems like a reasonable price. If Raymond were an evil genius à la Hannibal Lecter, the conceit wouldn’t work; Donnadieu plays him like a bored biology teacher demonstrating methods of psychological dissection. In his fucked-up way, he just wants to help.
For a visceral sense of how masterfully unorthodox The Vanishing is, one need only look at the dismal 1993 American remake, which stars Sandra Bullock as the missing woman, Kiefer Sutherland as her boyfriend, and Jeff Bridges (giving perhaps the weirdest performance of his career) as the abductor. Sluizer directed this version as well, but somebody—perhaps screenwriter Todd Graff—apparently talked him into giving American audiences the brain-dead experience they allegedly crave. The remake methodically dismantles everything that was singular about the original, replacing eerie disquiet with blunt ferocity and substituting catharsis for torment. In particular, it utterly botches the ending, which is easily the most unforgettable and disturbing aspect of the original. The film takes its sweet, creepy time instilling the need to know, then fulfills that need in the bleakest, most terminal way imaginable. It’s as cruel as life.
The Vanishing is available for purchase from Criterion on Blu-ray and DVD, to rent and own on iTunes, and to watch instantly on Hulu Plus.