DISAPPEARANCES (director/writer: Jay Craven; screenwriter: based on the book by Howard Frank Mosher; cinematographer: Wolfgang Held; editor: Beatrice Sisul; music: Jeff Claus/Judy Hyman; cast: Kris Kristofferson (Quebec Bill Bonhomme), Rusty Dewees (Frog Lamundy), Geneviève Bujold (Cordelia), Luis Guzmán (Brother St. Hilaire), John Griesemer (Brother St. Paul), Lothaire Bluteau (Carcajou), Gary Farmer (Henry Coville), Charlie McDermott (Wild Bill Bonhomme), Heather Rae (Evangeline), William Sanderson (Rat Kinneson), Munson Hicks (Sheriff); Runtime: 114; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Hathalee Higgs/Jay Craven; Screen Media; 2006)
“The story might sound fine on paper, but it didn’t quite work out that well when filmed.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Indie filmmaker Jay Craven (“Where the Rivers Flow North”/”Stranger in the Kingdom”) directs and writes a low-budget (filmed for about $1.7 million and taking five years to get enough money to finish) Vermont Western set in 1932 in the Northeast Kingdom (filmed on location at Lake Willoughby, Vermont). It’s based on the 1977 novel “Disappearances” by Howard Frank Mosher; all Craven’s films have been based on Mosher novels. The adventure film aims to take the viewer into a bygone world and adds Indian folklore magic-realism (such as a snow owl to symbolize either death or wisdom) to give the story a deeper meaning. Its sluggish pace, especially in the second half, contributes to its mixed results–getting the atmosphere right thanks to the fine photography by Wolfgang Held but not able to capture the magical moments except through heavy-handed lecture points.
The film opens with a quote by William Faulkner “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” If you left at this point you would still have gotten the film’s main theme. It starts out with the farming Bonhomme family, in Vermont’s Kingdom County, hard-pressed to make ends meet during the Depression after their barn burns down and they lose the hay to feed their cattle herd for the upcoming winter. The scheming, fun-loving, likable rascal of a family patriarch, Quebec Bill (Kris Kristofferson), a former whiskey-runner, decides to go on a dangerous whiskey run across the border to Canada and convinces his good-natured brother-in-law Henry (Gary Farmer), his disconsolate ex-con hired farmhand Rat Kinneson (William Sanderson) and his realistic, naive and gentle 14-year-old son, ironically called Wild Bill (Charlie McDermott), to come along. Wild Bill goes against his mother’s (Heather Rae) wishes, as Quebec Bill’s school teacher sister Cordelia (Geneviève Bujold) convinces mom it would be a good chance for him to learn about the long bootlegging family tradition.
Henry takes along Rat in his brand new super-charged Cadillac, named ‘White Lightning,’ while father and son cross Lake Willoughby by canoe. It soon turns into a hearty adventure tale, and for Wild Bill it’s a coming-of-age story that involves his first taste of whiskey and his first time killing a man (like in a tale from the Old West, the kid has now been inducted into manhood). The foursome steal about a dozen cases of hijacked Seagram’s whiskey from a dangerous whiskey hijacker with many lives, the bearded and dressed in Civil War regalia badass named Carcajou (Lothaire Bluteau). They then try to make it back to their home in one piece by stealing a motorboat, disguised as monks and later stealing a train, as the smugglers pursue them. Along the way, in superimposed artificial shots countering the live action, Wild Bill receives magical messages, news of omens and prophesies from his spiritual aunt, Cordelia, who takes it upon herself to mentor and make the kid understand himself and his birthright in a landscape that is quickly changing and disappearing.
The story might sound fine on paper, but it didn’t quite work out that well when filmed. Probably the main problem was that Cordelia might have worked as a literary device in a novel, but on film her character seemed impossible to get across. Secondly the film’s pacing was uneven, as after a lighthearted lively start it got bogged down in the woods with unnecessary ennui over mystical scenes that brought the film to a screeching halt. Finally, Charlie McDermott, the inexperienced thespian youngster, acted by rote and his halting performance couldn’t carry off being the story’s anchor and in almost every scene.
REVIEWED ON 4/14/2007 GRADE: C
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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