The Vanished (2020)
★ / ★★★★
Although a terrible miscalculation as a whole, you have to hand it to writer-director Peter Facinelli for flooding the screenplay with countless red herrings. Just when you think you have the mystery surrounding a possible child abduction all figured out, the material takes an outlandish step forward and introduces the idea that something even more sinister is at play. “The Vanished,” originally titled “Hour of Lead,” is like a freeway pileup: you know what has happened is awful and that it won’t get better despite your rubbernecking, yet still you cannot look away.
One of the most obvious problems is its lack of tonal control. The plot opens with the disappearance of a ten-year-old girl named Taylor (Kk Heim, Sadie Heim) when she and her parents, Wendy and Paul (Anne Heche, Thomas Jane) decide to go camping at a lake during Thanksgiving holidays. The campground is forty miles from the nearest civilization and it just so happens there is an escaped convict hiding in the woods. Cue the parents panicking when they discover that Taylor is not in the RV, the outhouse, or by the dock. She and her father planned to go fishing that afternoon.
Given the sub-genre, it is expected that the work will tiptoe the line between drama and thriller. What really happened to the little girl? Who is—or are—responsible, directly and indirectly? Can the couple’s relationship withstand this traumatizing event divorced from the outcome of Sheriff Baker’s investigation (Jason Patric)? Facinelli is so confident with the screenplay that he decides to take on a big risk: introduce darkly funny moments as the distressed parents choose to lead their own investigation right under the noses of cops scouring the grounds day and night.
Here is further proof that dark comedy is incredibly difficult to pull off. Wendy and Paul are not written as sharp as they can be and so when something amusing happens, discerning viewers will see through the seams almost immediately. An example is when they break into a neighboring RV. They are shown being nervous and alert as they search through drawers, closets, and secret hiding places. They suspect that the owners may arrive at any second. And yet the couple find the time to stop in the middle of their desperation to argue—all for the sake of giving us light chuckles. Not only does it ring false, it impedes the momentum of the scene.
When back in their own RV, they argue again. Sometimes they find themselves throwing objects at each other or making a mess just because. This formula is repeated throughout the picture’s nearly two-hour running time—which feels closer to three—and tension is slowly spirited away. The constant bait-and-switch, coupled with Wendy and Paul’s increasingly outrageous decisions, is so exhausting that we are conditioned to no longer care about the life of the missing girl; we simply wish for the body to be found so that the movie can end.
The real funny thing is, I can imagine this story working had it fully embraced the very element that makes it special or stand out. I got the impression, or some semblance of it, that the writer-director intended to make a statement about abduction or missing persons pictures. These movies tend to follow a certain trajectory, mood, or feeling and so he wanted to upend it in small ways. But the correct decision might have been to satirize the sub-genre completely: maintain a straight face on the surface but inside a riotous exploration of how parents’ fears can push them to entertain insane actions for the sake of preserving their progeny. Heche and Jane appear all in. They deliver the required emotions regardless of the incompetence manifested on the script. I wished the writer-director was, too.