A film about uncertainty is hard to pull off. It is not as simple as merely leaving out information. That’s how you get plot holes and incoherent stories. The medium of film is all about looking into a world, familiar or not, from a specific point of view, but if the event portrayed is frustrating and full of unanswered questions, then how can you make that cinematic? George Sluizer meets this challenge in The Vanishing by reflecting the audience’s anxiety for illumination within the film itself.
Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) are a couple on vacation in Europe. They stop at a rest stop to fill up for gas. Saskia disappears, and Rex desperately searches for her to no avail. His search continues for three years, destroying any possibility of a normal life, including a relationship with Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus), who clearly loves him. He makes a plea on national TV that he would do anything to know what happened; that he doesn’t even need the criminal to be brought to justice. He catches the attention of Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donadieu) who soon presents himself to Rex and says that he can offer him the answers that he is looking for. (Do not read further if you want to be completely free of spoilers, though I do not reveal the very end of the film.)
While Rex and Raymond play a cat-and-mouse game with each other, we start to learn more about Raymond and what makes him tick. The movie about the serial killer and his psychology is by now a hackneyed, yet wildly popular genre, but this was one of the earlier examples, before the deluge of such films in the decades following. Depending on your experience with such films, The Vanishing is either a very pale film in comparison to some of the flashier films in this genre, or a fascinatingly unique (and influential one).
The main draw of any serial killer film is not necessarily the murders he (it’s redundant to point out that serial killers are overwhelmingly male) commits but rather the opportunity to see what kind of person would commit such an act. The spine-tingling terror that you get from knowing such a person exists is a crystallization of our fear of randomness and fate, and how such killers seem to be devoid of this fear (or any emotion in general). All these films are essentially character studies, which sets them apart from other horror movies since the monsters or malevolent forces often do not have much character to speak of. No one expects a zombie to spill more than its guts out on a couch.
What makes The Vanishing fascinating is that it is a character study of an uncompelling character. On the surface, Raymond is comfortably married with two beautiful daughters. He seems relatively affluent and privileged. He is certainly not a colorful character like Hannibal Lecter, who seems practically cartoonish compared to Raymond. He definitely does not have the disenfranchised lifestyle like the characters in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, another common reason attributed to the birth of serial killers. Even Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, who is the closest modern analogue to Raymond in terms of how devoid he is of personality, is still a colorful character in his own right. Not to mention that Chigurh’s M.O. is extreme, excessive violence. In fact, it’s downright questionable to call him a serial killer since we only see him carry out two murders (one offscreen, maybe) effectively.
In some ways, the movie would have made more sense if the actors who played Rex and Raymond reversed roles. Rex has more of the obsessive dark quality that you would see in a certain kind of compelling villain. His behavior comes at the cost of his relationship with Lieneke, and he seems to feel relatively little regret compared to his overwhelming obsession. Raymond, on the other hand, is a calmer presence. He looks like (and is) someone’s dad, someone you wouldn’t think twice about leaving your kids with to be watched.
Perhaps the movie’s most unique aspect is how it focuses on Raymond practicing his craft. Serial killers almost seem to exist in a vacuum sometimes, materializing into thin air fully malevolent and lethally capable. It is the matter-of-factness of how he times how long chloroform will knock out a person that really puts him in the same family as the other killers I have mentioned. The even sicker joke that Sluizer and screenwriter Tim Krabbe pulls on us is that we kind of want to see Raymond succeed. Mostly because we want to see if he actually committed the murder as he claims, but perhaps there is more to it. When he gets flustered at one of his earlier failed attempts, we feel frustrated as well, but why? On the other hand, Rex’s obsession with knowing the truth is so overwhelming and pure that it’s easy to assign metaphorical value to it – perhaps he is an everyman confronting death, or the emptiness of existence, or both. Rex is very much a complex human being with the neuroses and complicated motives and emotions that characterize all humanity.
Perhaps then, the reason Raymond is a villain is because he is too simple. His reason for killing is chillingly simple and childish even – he wants to know if doing something good truly feels better than doing something completely evil, especially if he has no conscience he is aware of. Usually character studies, especially ones that unfold like this in dialogue, can be uninspiring and stagey, but Sluizer found a way to make this genre picture stand out enough that one can still admire the craft of this picture, even after nearly decades of similar material.