MARCH/APRIL 2008
JIM SHEPARD

THE VANISHING
AND AMERICAN SOCIOPATHY

JUST BECAUSE YOU DID SOMETHING
DOESN’T MEAN YOU’RE CAPABLE OF DOING IT.

DISCUSSED: Spoorloos, Killer Next Door Movies, The Quik Mart of France, Ersatz Arm Slings, Goatees, Spiders, Beautiful Screams, Predation Education, Chocolate Éclairs, Untranslatable German Words, Ménages à Trois, Organically Grown Murderousness, Freud, The Lure of a Terrified Girl, Sleeping Pills, The Chief UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq, Picnic as Heimlich

A SIMPLE NIGHTMARE IDEA

In 1988 a bizarre little Dutch thriller disconcerted enough people on both sides of the Atlantic to generate some serious word-of-mouth—so much, in fact, that its director, George Sluizer, was handed a pile of money a few years later to make an American version. About that second version, the less said the better. The first, though, earned itself a cult following not only of connoisseurs of the killer next door subgenre but also of cineasts transfixed by the intricacy of the narrative structure and the icy persuasiveness of the central performances. Both versions had the same title—The Vanishing (Spoorloos, for those of you following along in your Dutch–English dictionaries)—but the first version accomplished something that almost no other examples of that subgenre have been able to pull off: it left audiences demolished by their implied identification with what had taken place on-screen. Of course, all killer next door movies by definition aspire to that: there’s a little killer in all of us. Oooo: and we all give a little shiver. But until The Vanishing, no movie had so smoothly and implacably led its audience to a glimpse of the size and casualness of its capacity for sociopathy. And it’s the casualness of that sociopathy that seems to me so reminiscent of where Americans are today, as our society has finally begun to register in a widespread way what our elected officials have in our name brought down on all sorts of people in all sorts of places. Having registered that, we’ve gone about our business. Many—maybe most—of us are filled with regret, or distaste, to be sure. But meanwhile those elected officials are still sitting where they were eight years ago. And what are most of us doing about it? Well, a number of us are complaining to one another. There’s been a lot of shopping.

The Vanishing spins out of an appealingly simple little nightmare idea: a quasi-happy young couple, Rex and Saskia, pull into a rest stop in France on a cycling vacation. After they hang out for a little while, Saskia heads into France’s version of a Quik Mart to buy them a beer and a Coke. She never comes back.

What happened to her? Rex spends the rest of the movie trying to find out. We find out almost immediately, at least in terms of who did it. We don’t know, however, what he did. And of course, we want to know almost as much as Rex does.

It turns out that Raymond, placid family man and infinitely comfortable petit bourgeois, is behind her disappearance. In our first glimpse of him, he’s in his car working his hand through a false plaster cast, apparently in the hopes of faking a broken arm, when Rex and Saskia are pulling into the rest stop. He seems fastidious, frowning in serious-minded concentration over his goatee. We register him noticing them afterward, standing about with his ersatz arm sling. And after a harrowing seven minutes of screen time spent alongside an increasingly distraught Rex trying to negotiate the sheer impossibility of his girlfriend’s disappearance, the narrative shifts to Raymond, dressed like a businessman and carrying a small bottle to what looks like a neglected house in the country. The house in the country turns out to feature a family, and, while we watch, he and they set a table outside for a dinner in the yard. An affectionate if slightly fussbudgety dad and his wife and two teenage daughters sit down to a nice meal. One daughter opens a shallow drawer in the table and shrieks: it’s crawling with spiders. Raymond scolds her: they’re not only useful, they’re adorable, lovable animals. And that was a really beautiful scream, he adds. Can he hear it again? She gives it a shot. Both daughters alternate trying to outdo one another while the mother looks at each of them, disconcerted and uneasy. Then she’s asked to contribute, and after a hesitation, she screams, too. Raymond seems to approve; then, to be a good sport, he shrieks. We cut to the next day and a neighbor chatting with him. Raymond wants to know: His family thought they heard screams. Had the neighbor? No, the neighbor tells him. He hadn’t heard a thing. Raymond smiles, pleased.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Jim Shepard is the author of six novels, including most recently Project X (Knopf, 2004) and three story collections, most recently Like You’d Understand, Anyway (Knopf, 2007).

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