Brad Anderson directed Session 9 (2001), indisputably one of the best and arguably the best horror film of its decade. He followed this feature with another fantastic film, The Machinist (2004). I recently watched his latest feature film, Vanishing on 7th Street (2010) via the Zune Video application via the XBOX Live Marketplace (with content accessible in the United States). I would like to share this small anecdote about my life before this review of Anderson's latest film, as I feel it is very appropriate:
I grew up in a small community on the Gulf of Mexico. I attended college in New Orleans and after graduating, I moved to Los Angeles. Within a couple months of arriving, I was sleeping soundly in my apartment until I was awoken by a considerable rumbling. I sat up in bed, disoriented, confused, and worried. Within a few seconds, my mind began to rationalize: "Hey, stupid, this is Los Angeles. That was an earthquake." An immediate sense of comfort warmed over me when I realized this, and any fear that I held almost disappeared. For all I knew the Big One was about to hit, but the comfort that I had received in identifying the source of my fear stayed and lessened any other immediate fears.
What would happen if that comfort were removed? What if a catastrophe were to occur and none of its survivors could identify its source? How would they act and react to circumstances? This is the thematic premise of Vanishing on 7th Street. Here is a bare description of the set-up for the film:
Paul (John Leguizamo) is an introverted projectionist working at a multiplex movie theatre. Rosemary (Thandie Newton) is a physical therapist who works at a hospital and has an infant child. Luke (Hayden Christensen) works at a television station as a reporter and is fucking the woman who covers the weather. One evening, all of the power everywhere immediately goes out, and everyone, save primarily the mentioned three above, disappear. These three do not know each other at all. As each scrambles in the darkness to survive, a bar appears in the middle of the city with its power intact. Luke is the first to enter the bar and meet its sole inhabitant, a child named James (Jacob Latimore). The three characters eventually unite at this bar. The only thing that is certain is that something which can exist only in darkness is making people disappear.
Anderson seemed to have in mind the massive failure which was M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening (2008) and wished to not recreate its mistakes, as both films deal with the same thematic premise. Both filmmakers deserve kudos in attempting to tackle this premise, as virtually no one can relate to its dilemma. If a catastrophe were to occur and no one could, with any degree of certainty, identify its source, then what would people do? Immediately, I'm certain that some would ignore the question completely and just attempt to survive as best as possible. Ignorant and/or uneducated people would probably make something up to create a sense of comfort and pick an easy target, like terrorists. All the characters that Anderson presents in Vanishing are intelligent people who are trying to understand what is going on but are having a lot of trouble just surviving.
Anderson is walking a tightrope with his viewer. First, how he is able to adequately convey his ideas to his viewer? Second, as Vanishing is a horror film, is he going to be able to generate the fear that is very much present in his characters into his audience?
The mystery of the colony at Roanoke is Anderson's primary thematic metaphor. Shy and introverted Paul is seen reading about the colony at the beginning of the film, and later when the three unite at the bar, it is Paul who brings it into the discussion. While the mystery colony is Anderson's primary metaphor, his primary tool in conveying his thematic ideas is dialogue. Vanishing is set largely in the bar, and when the three are together, they talk quite a bit. This amount of dialogue coupled with the singular setting gives Vanishing a stage-play-like quality. This is not a bad thing in itself, but at the time of my viewing, I wasn't in the mood to see a film structured like this. It doesn't help the proceedings much when the characters break their dialogue to have an emotional outburst. These outbursts are frequent, and while I can feel for these characters, watching them continually breakdown becomes annoying. Ultimately, Anderson overdoes the dialogue so his themes aren't hidden, and this quality sacrifices the dramatic and compelling qualities of the cinema.
That is not to say Vanishing is not compelling on a visual and atmospheric level. When the characters are shown alone, two things happen: one, each does not talk; and two, Anderson really shows his creative talent. Luke's visit to the television station, the morning after the incident, is a highlight. Paul, later in the film, takes a bizarre trip, which Anderson mixes with footage from present events and Paul's subjectivity. Newton's sequences alone are also visually compelling and tension-filled. Incidentally, Newton's scenes alone are much more affecting emotionally (instead of the frequent bouts of crying to which she is given). There is a brilliant film in these sequences, but unfortunately, Anderson handholds his audience too much. Ironically, in a film about the fear of uncertainty, Anderson goes to length to make certain his audience understands this fear.
The film's conception is a big risk, and I wish that Anderson would have went further. Vanishing, with its few brilliant sequences, could have surpassed Kiyoshi Kurosawa's underappreciated masterpiece, Kairo (2001), which also deals with similar material. As it stands, Vanishing on 7th Street is another example of commercial conservatism overshadowing real artistic talent.