When the Dutch original of this film came out, it blew my mind, as it did to many others. It's one of those films that leads up to a whopper ending that gives the entire thing reason for being. So when it came to the American remake, the question was: would it retain the ending? And when the suspicion (and the reality) came to be a resounding "Of course not!" the question became "So then what are they going to do to make up for it?" And while this is a lame movie that is deserving of everyone's derision, I have to say that on this viewing I kind of grew to respect what it decided to do instead.
One thing to know going in is that this is directed by the same guy who directed the original, so one has to ask what (aside from making money and gaining stateside exposure) he wanted to get out of making a castrated American version of his respected film. We open with a shot of a bottle of chloroform on the dashboard of Jeff Bridges as Barney. He drives to a lakeside cabin where he drugs himself with it, then times how long he was out. We see him pick up his daughter, who asks him if he's having an affair, since he's spending so much time at this cabin. We hear that Bridges is doing a weird nerdy kind of voice, and see his long stringy hair, part of his characterization of this guy as a socially-isolated academic. We also see that he has a weird, close but strangely sadistic relationship with his young daughter, Denise.
We now join Keifer Sutherland as Jeff on vacation with his girlfriend, Sandra Bullock as Diane. They are at Mount St. Helens, where she gets weirded out and demands that they leave. They bicker. They run out of gas in the middle of a tunnel. They fight, and Jeff leaves her to go get gas. When he returns she is all upset at having been left. This is where lovers of the original film are initially alienated, as this sequence contains none of the moody creepiness it possessed in the original. They go to a gas station--where Jeff fills up for a mere $15!--and she makes Jeff swear never to leave her again. She goes inside, Jeff plays hacky sack(!), we see that Barney is also present... and she never comes out. Jeff waits around all night and... three years later!
We learn that Jeff goes around replacing his missing posters for Diane every 30 days, even after all this time. We then meet him coming in to a diner late at night, smoking like a chimney and his hair in a mullet. Obviously we know, given his choice of hairstyle, that he is in a low place in his life. He meets diner waitress Nancy Travis as Rita, who takes an inordinate interest, and forces him to stay over and get some sleep. Poof! Next thing you know, they're moving in together! And Jeff has cut his mullet, meaning that he is in a healthier psychological place (please refer to my groundbreaking paper "Ape Drape: The Mullet as an Indicator of Psychological Distress"). We learn that Jeff was a copywriter, and is trying to make it as a novelist. He tells Rita that they will have "no secrets," and promises to leave all that quest for Diane behind him, but then a publisher rejects his novel, but commissions him to write a book about his search for Diane. How is this guy supposed to move on?
Jeff goes beyond breaking the "no secrets" rule when he buys a uniform and tells Rita that he is an Army reservist, only to create a secret Diane-finding outpost and appear on a local talk show telling of his continued search. Meanwhile, Rita is at home, snooping in Jeff's computer, figuring out his password and reading his book, which she sees is about Diane. So she does what any of us might, buys a costume to make herself appear as Diane, and shows up at Jeff's door looking like THIS:
They have a big emotional scene! He says he just can't stand not knowing! She forces him to return to the gas station where Diane vanished, then makes an ultimatum: her or me. Meanwhile you, who don't recall any of this whiny emotional reparative therapy and relationship mumbo-jumbo, are sitting there like "WTF IS all this stuff?" Jeff promises to give up his quest and--wouldn't you know it!--that's when Barney decides to contact him!
SPOILERS > > >
Jeff shows Rita Barney's letter! She makes another ultimatum! You say "WTF?" She walks out and there's a fairly effective scene in which it looks like Barney is going to kidnap her, too! Only he loses interest once he learns they've broken up, but that was a good new element--that he wants to mess with Jeff even more by doing the same thing to his new girlfriend. He meets up with Jeff, and after receiving a beating, tells Jeff that if he wants to know what happened to Diane, he'll have to come along for a ride. Jeff goes. As they drive, Barney tells Jeff of a time when he saved a young girl from drowning, and became a hero in his daughter's eyes. But he knew he wasn't necessarily good, and wanted to see if she would still love him if he did something evil, something that would be the worst thing imaginable. We also learn that Barney is claustrophobic, which bears on what his idea of the worst thing imaginable might be. All this psychological talk and coming to understand this psychopath made up the bulk of the original film, by the way, and perhaps is the reason this is the only section of this film that is remotely interesting.
Now, reading further at this point will also spoil the ending of the original film, which you should preserve for yourself if you don't know what it is. So it's time for you to skip out of the spoiler zone. Okay, now it's just us, let's proceed. Barney tells Jeff that he has to experience exactly what Diane experienced, and that's how he'll find out what happened to her. He offers Jeff some drugged coffee, and Jeff agonizes, then drinks it. In here we have an insert shot of Barney shoveling dirt, and saying "I said I'd show you exactly what happens to Diane..." for all the stupid people in the audience. Jeff wakes up--in a coffin! He's been buried alive! THAT'S what happened to Diane! And in the original, you're sitting there like "Okay, now he's going to get out and..." and then it slowly occurs that Jeff is NOT going to get out, and then the movie ends, and you sit there in shock. See what I mean about knowing that the American version is never going to have the balls to retain the original ending?
What this version does now is pile on a stupefying amount of ludicrous coinkidinks. First, Rita learns, through a whole series of circumstances regarding an answering machine message, that Jeff has met up with Barney. Then it would JUST SO HAPPEN that there's an autistic woman right across the way who JUST SO HAPPENS to remember Barney's exact license plate number! Then Rita goes to the cops and tells them her car was stolen, and handily gets Barney's address! Then she goes to the house and just HAPPENS to run into Barney's daughter! Rita poses as Barney's mistress and gets directions out to his lakeside cabin! One can just imagine the late-night brainstorming sessions that came around to the feeling that this massive chain of circumstances might in some small way be plausible.
Meanwhile Jeff is waking up in the coffin and issuing the "DOH!" of his life, as he realizes what has happened. I appreciate him using his lighter to illuminate the scene for us, but on the other hand I think he should be more mindful of conserving his oxygen. We leave him for a bit, and see Rita arriving at the cabin. She is attacked by Barney! They fight! She gets drugged! They fight! They both get muddy, making poor Rita look not so much her best. Then she bluffs that she has Barney's daughter! She tells him that HE has to drink the drugged coffee to find out what happened! He does! Meanwhile, anyone who has seen and loved the original film is dying inside. Not to mention thinking "So Jeff has been out of oxygen for what, 20-40 minutes at this point? How likely is it he's going to be dug up now?"
Well baby, this is HOLLYWOOD. Nancy digs up Jeff and he's FINE! Not even any devastating brain damage, thank you very much. But--Barney's still kickin'! This allows Jeff to be able to dispatch the killer himself, and conventions dictate that he must. We're not going to go through all of this just for Rita to finish him off. Next thing you know, the happy couple is meeting with Jeff's publisher, and Jeff is turning down the opportunity to turn the whole thing into a bestseller (they'll just get by on Rita's income as a diner waitress). The waiter brings coffee and they both say "Oh no thanks! We don't drink coffee!" which is just SO FUNNY given the drugged coffee ordeal they just went though. Oh boy, this movie sure is a stitch. What a hoot.
< < < SPOILERS END
Okay, so it's crap, let's just start there. If you loved the original, this is a travesty in almost all the worst ways possible, taking everything you loved about it and systematically destroying it before your eyes. Not to mention removing all of the psychology and philosophy of the original and replacing it with a ton of dreary, Oprah-level romance, full of emotional catharsis, healing moments, and tearful ultimatums about how you have to let go of the past and see the true love right there before your eyes. Not to mention that it is just dramatically inert. We don't see any connection between Jeff and Diane--kind of seems like they hate each other--so there's little sense of why he grows so obsessed with finding out what happened. Then Rita is such a generic "vivacious" character as was so popular in the 90s, and her relationship with Jeff has such little basis in reality and is filled with so many extra-special movie moments and emotional scenes--not to mention that if you've seen the original, as many in the audience surely have, you're sitting there like "Who IS this woman? WHY are we watching all this SHIT?" Not to mention the incredible coincidence-fest that contrives to bring Rita to Jeff's aid, and her bizarrely off-kilter showdown with the killer. Pretty much everything about this whole version of the film is off, and it fails to generate any tension or interest of it's own.
But I said at the beginning I kind of came to respect it, right? Well, director Sluizer HAD to know that he would never be able to have that ending in America (and I read today that he indeed went in knowing he'd never be able to keep the ending), so the challenge, whether it fell to him or the screenwriter or some combination of both, was to take a movie whose entire reason for being is its ending, and reconceive it in such a way that it can work without the ending. And it seems that the idea they came to was to make it about Jeff's new relationship and his need to give up his quest and move on. Yes, it doesn't work and it is pretty all-round facile (might have worked without Travis' bigger-than-life portrayal and the numerous ludicrous story wrinkles), but it IS an idea and a response to a very specific challenge and I have to kind of give them props for that.
The only other thing in its favor is that Bridges is giving a real performance, using an affected voice throughout and with a solid idea of what he wants to do with this role. Sutherland was just adequate to the part at that time in his career, and he's never been the most cuddly fellow anyway. It's a little funny to have Bullock as the support and Nancy Travis in the "Sandra Bullock" role, but this was before Speed, and during the short span of years in which they tried to push Travis on us as a star. She never quite caught fire. Director Sluizer went right back to making Dutch films. And this became one of the first American remakes to ruin everything one might have loved about the original, reinforce the idea that Americans are stupid cattle, and fail miserably. And here we are today.
No, not unless you adore the original and are curious how badly they might fuck it up.
THE VANISHING (1988) is the original Dutch film that is so much better than this in every conceivable way.