Monday, May 14, 2007

Film Review #101: Disappearances
Director: Jay Craven
Cast: Kris Kristofferson, Genevieve Bujold, Charlie McDermott

Early in writer-director Jay Craven’s yarn about Prohibition-era whiskey smuggling across the Vermont-Quebec border, fifteen year-old “Wild Bill” Bonhomme – a grave and thoughtful young man played by Charlie McDermott, whose nickname comes more from his father’s dreams than his own temperament – seeks his Aunt Cordelia’s help. Hard times have driven Wild Bill’s father, Quebec Bill (Kris Kristofferson), back into the whiskey-running business, and the son wants in the worst way to go with his father, his Uncle Henry (Gary Farmer) and the quirky hired man, Muskrat Kinneson (William Sanderson), on this run for twenty cases they’ve heard are sitting there for the snatching. What fifteen-year-old would not want to canoe over the border with this crew, drink his first whiskey in a Quebec roadhouse with his Arcadian fiddlin’ dad, and race through the deep cedar woods in his Uncle Henry’s souped-up white Cadillac, outsmarting legendary, possibly supernatural bandits?

“Your mother treats you like a prize fish. Leave it to me,” says Cordelia (Genevieve Bujold), who agrees against her own better judgment to convince Wild Bills’ Cherokee mother Evangeline (Heather Rae) to let the boy visit a larger, wilder pond.

So Wild Bill goes with his father on a trip some would call ill-fated. Near the story’s end, the two are alone in the woods, Wild Bill hauling the wounded older man on a travois as the merciless and seemingly unkillable bandit Carcajou (Lothaire Bluteau) chases them. Quebec Bill directs his son to chop a frozen trout out of the brookside ice. Though the boy protests the fish is dead, Quebec Bill stashes it inside his coat and a little while later hands it back, wriggling, for Wild Bill to return to the stream. Perhaps underestimated as a mere man of action next to his mystical sister – Cordelia offers oracular advice, sees the future, and suddenly materializes and vanishes throughout the story – Quebec Bill delivers one of the film’s more graceful lessons on our illusions about the frozen present moment in the vast flow of time. Surrounded by revelations about lost fathers and whole freight trains gone missing, it’s a lesson more powerful because so modest.

Set in 1932 shortly before Prohibition ended, Disappearances completes what Jay Craven calls his “Vermont frontier trilogy,” three features based on interconnected novels by his old friend Howard Frank Mosher. Craven’s career has largely succeeded by his staking a claim as a regional filmmaker – he says “indigenous filmmaking” – and the frontier trilogy, along with some shorts and docs and The Year That Trembled (2002), an ensemble drama framed by the 1970 Kent State shootings, all come out of that aesthetic territory. His first feature, Where the Rivers Flow North (1993), is a brooding, atmospheric tale set in 1927 about a stubborn old woodsman and his long-time Native companion (Rip Torn and an incandescent Tantoo Cardinal) pitted against a hydroelectric project. A Stranger in the Kingdom (1999) depicts a World War II Black Army chaplain accused of murdering a white woman in a Vermont town. Craven has a pool of actors he works with often (the marvelously versatile Bill Raymond, for example) and typically lands much larger names who turn out to be old friends, believers in indie filmmaking, Vermont property-shoppers, and supporters of Craven’s summer camp for young filmmakers, Fledgling Films.

Mosher and Craven both live in Vermont – Craven teaches film at Marlboro College, and with his wife Bess O’Brien and producer Hathalee Higgs runs Kingdom County Productions – in the three-county area that residents traditionally call the “Northeast Kingdom,” also the setting for Mosher’s novels and Craven’s frontier trilogy. In their collaboration, this is an intricate, many-layered world. Disappearances was Mosher’s first novel – published in 1977 – but Craven may have left adapting this one till last because its thickets of criss-crossing, echoing symbols are more treacherous to film than to encounter on the page.

Craven likens the Disappearances film to a Western, with the Depression’s ragged hardship and Prohibition’s outlaw mentality transplanted to the lakes and woods along Canada’s border. The “magical realist whimsy” Craven finds in Mosher’s novel also dove-tails with his own fondness for dream-state cinema and the region’s already rich, trans-border blend of French Canadian and indigenous mythology – for example, the bandit Carcajou as menacing, shape-shifting loup garou and the snowy owl as signal of impending death.

There is an ambitious third anchor. Besides opening Disappearances with novelist William Faulkner’s warning – that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” – it’s clear that Craven and Mosher’s joint project aims to build a mythical world of Vermont’s “Kingdom County” that rivals Faulkner’s fictional “Yoknapatawpha County” in Mississippi. So one finds a “Faulknerian” web of associations, memory, family allusions and betrayals throughout Mosher’s novels that reverberate in Craven’s film adaptations. Wild Bill’s Uncle Henry Coville, brought so vividly to life here by Native actor Gary Farmer, appears briefly back in 1993’s Rivers Flow North film (played by another actor). Muskrat Kinneson’s clan occurs in several Mosher novels – including his newest, set in 1930 and titled On Kingdom Mountain, whose release in early July will coincide with the DVD release of Disappearances. Just as Faulkner’s novels carry an undertow of the South’s racial intermingling, the Vermont trilogy includes Native characters in sometimes sharply conflicted relations to white Vermonters, complicated all the more by the cross-border French factor. Like all American stories, then – to point to the tip of an iceberg – Disappearances is about disinheritance.

So Disappearances is ladled from a rich stew – its blessing and its major obstacle cinematically. Though it seems severe to say so, the film has loose ends – transitions that seem mechanical rather than organic, and moments when Kristofferson is coasting rather than moving the scene – that I can’t help thinking would have surfaced and been dealt with if less went on here. But mostly Disappearances is a welcome and often enough wondrous window on a corner of America that we really haven’t seen on-screen like this before Craven’s work. Disappearances did the festival run and – Craven’s done this with his other films too – spent last summer touring a hundred rural Vermont communities, filling the state’s relatively few movie theaters and church basements, Grange halls, and school auditoriums. Road-tested on home ground, the film is now one of twenty chosen by AFI as part of their 20/20 Project global film exchange for 2007.

This review appeared on 5/14/07 in Disappearances opened May 4th in San Francisco & Seattle & May 11th at Quad Cinema in New York City for one week runs, with subsequent limited theatrical release through June & DVD release in early July. Craven’s other features are available at