Ayoung woman’s husband goes off to war and returns years later seeming like a different man: stronger, bolder, more tenderly amorous. Is this born-again dreamboat really her husband, or is he an imposter?
At a crowded highway rest stop, a woman heads off to buy some refreshments and never returns. Haunted by her disappearance, her boyfriend spends the next several years searching for her, his obsessive need to know what happened putting him on a hellish collision course with fate.
Romance, mystery, dread — the plots of Sommersby and The Vanishing are studded with primal pop hooks, the kind that have kept audiences flocking to American movies for nearly a century. The irony is that neither film began life in Hollywood: Both are remakes of European art-house favorites. Set just after the Civil War, Sommersby is a lush romantic update of the haunting 1982 French film The Return of Martin Guerre, which was itself based on a popular Gallic fable. The Vanishing is a less successful — but in some ways more provocative — case: It is Dutch director George Sluizer’s American remake of his own consummately disturbing 1990 thriller. How well do European movies work with a Hollywood make-over? If Sommersby and The Vanishing are any indication, they can work just fine — at least when the people behind the camera don’t forget what made the originals powerful.
In Sommersby, a bearded, muddy figure (Richard Gere) tromps across the dark green wilderness of the American South, finally arriving in Vine Hill, Tenn. He claims to be Jack Sommersby, a wealthy plantation owner who had left to fight with the Confederate forces seven years before. As Sommersby traipses through town, his friends, rivals, and former slaves (now freed) all turn out to greet the returning hero. Then he heads for his stately two-story brick home and is reunited with his wife, Laurel (Jodie Foster), and young son.
Sommersby, we’re told, had been a violent, difficult man — ”rich and stupid,” in his wife’s own words. Now, though, he seems warm, openhearted, virile. He flirts affectionately with Laurel and makes passionate love to her. He restores economic vitality to the region by selling off his land and organizing a collective tobacco-farming effort. He treats blacks the same way he treats whites. A true man of the people. But can he really be Jack Sommersby?
Directed with engrossing craftsmanship by the British-born Jon Amiel (Tune In Tomorrow), Sommersby is less ambiguous than The Return of Martin Guerre was about the true identity of its hero. The movie takes its tone from Gere’s sly- eyed, utterly winning performance, which cues us to see Jack as a kind of actor, a man who knows how to fool people precisely because he responds so generously to their natures. The delicate romantic twist at the heart of Sommersby is that Laurel Sommersby accepts — and, indeed, welcomes — her husband’s changed nature. Foster uses her radiant, beaming gaze to communicate supernal happiness. Her Laurel, all elegant 19th-century politesse, wakes up in the middle of a union so blissful it’s like a dream. As acted by Foster and Gere, the tender, playful relationship between Jack and Laurel becomes a metaphor for the mystery of marriage, for the notion that a true life partner should remain a kind of constantly evolving stranger.
If Sommersby is finally more pleasant than exciting, that may be because its post-Civil War setting robs the story of much of its exoticism. In the medieval peasant village of Martin Guerre, the central relationship felt subversive and dangerous: a modern marriage centuries ahead of its time. In Sommersby, the Reconstruction era is contemporary enough to make Jack and Laurel seem less like revolutionaries than like a model couple. When the two start selling off their land, they become as smooth a working partnership as the Clintons’; Jack’s saintly treatment of black workers reeks of ’90s sensitive-guy compassion. And the movie’s ”tragic” climax is simply too overwrought to believe. Is it really plausible that Jack Sommersby would make the sacrifice he does all because of a desperate desire to have his own name? The ending of Sommersby is undermined by the single most attractive quality in Gere’s performance — the enthusiastic conviction with which he plays a hustler.
George Sluizer’s original version of The Vanishing was such a masterful creep show that it’s hard to imagine how it could have been improved. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped Sluizer from trying. His new Vanishing sticks fairly close to the first one, yet it features several ”Americanized” revisions that only distract us from the story’s queasy horror. Once again, an attractive young couple, Jeff (Kiefer Sutherland) and Diane (Sandra Bullock), run out of gas on a holiday road trip. They separate, find fuel, quarrel over what happened, and end up at a highway service stop, where Diane goes in to buy a couple of drinks. That’s the last Jeff sees of her.
What happened to Diane? In the original, we had virtually no idea (there was even a suggestion that she might have left on her own). Sluizer, inspired, perhaps, by Antonioni’s L’Avventura, created an atmosphere of floating Hitchcockian menace, exploiting our subtlest anxieties about the people we love, the fear of sinister designs hidden within the fabric of the everyday. In the new Vanishing, Jeff and Diane’s relationship feels more perfunctory, and so does the pivotal disappearance sequence; it’s less a mystery than a finite puzzle. And the opening scene now gives us an extended close-up view of exactly who’s responsible for Diane’s disappearance. Barney Cousins (Jeff Bridges) is a civilized monster, a high school chemistry teacher driven by a kind of detached intellectual curiosity to see how far over the line into evil he’s capable of pushing himself. Bridges, sporting a choppy Eurotrash hairdo, plays this middle-class Nietzschean psychopath with a slack mouth, stoned gaze, and vague foreign accent. He seems loony, all right — he might as well be wearing a T-shirt that reads ”I’m the Bogeyman.”
Jeff meets a new girlfriend, the nurturing Rita (Nancy Travis), but continues his haunted search for Diane; eventually, he is drawn into Barney’s orbit. The psycho teases and taunts him, setting a trap based on Jeff’s own desire to learn what happened. As audience-grabbing twists go, this one remains irresistible. The trouble is, since Sluizer has tipped his hand so early, we no longer share the obsessional fervor of Jeff’s self-destructive curiosity. The Vanishing features serviceable performances, and much of it works on a prosaic thriller level. But the movie delivers its big kicker without a trace of the first film’s metaphysical terror — the sense that Jeff, in effect, has dug his own grave. Instead, Sluizer, in his one truly contemptible move, concocts a garish, clunky, slasher-in-the-woods climax that seems to trash everything that has come before it. A European director making his first Hollywood film may feel duty-bound to sell out, but for Sluizer the strategy has backfired. His original, pitch-black ending would have sent people out of the theater giddy with shock; it’s doubtful anyone will remember his new one long enough to tell their friends. Sommersby: B The Vanishing: C+