Watch Your Tone, by David Bax
Brad Anderson kind of reminds me of George Carlin.
George Carlin had a good career with a promising future as a kind of goofy but very safe comedian. He wore a suit. He made funny faces. And he was a good comic. But one day (it probably wasn’t that sudden but for these purposes, we’ll stick with “one day”) he came to a realization. This wasn’t him. He had something to say and a different way of saying it. He was going to, as the saying goes, let his freak flag fly.
Brad Anderson made a bit of noise in 1998 with Next Stop Wonderland, a slight but impressive indie rom-com starring Hope Davis, and then again in 2000 with Happy Accidents, a film I haven’t seen but certainly looks like more of the same. Then he turned a corner. 2001’s Session 9 is only similar to Anderson’s previous features in that it’s a small scale affair, shot digitally, mostly in available light in one location. But it’s a terrifying horror film that is somehow even scarier for taking place mostly in the daylight. After that came the twisted tour de force of The Machinist, the tense and gut-wrenching Transsiberian and now, the a high-concept and high-contrast apocalyptic horror story Vanishing on 7th Street.
If you’re wondering where this darker Brad Anderson came from, revisit Next Stop Wonderland. The aquarium where much of the film takes place has a very precise mood about it, an eeriness that draws you closer instead of repelling you. This mastery of atmosphere has become the defining trait of Anderson’s style and it is in full bloom in Vanishing.
As in The Machinist, the malevolent forces working against the protagonists here are only vague suggestions at first, creeping in around the edges in a way that allows you to almost convince yourself that they’re not there but ever-present nonetheless, oppressive and foreboding. They only become a little more defined as the film progresses but it’s these early glimpses that set the paranoid and downright unsettling mood.
If only atmosphere were the only element required here but, alas, this is a narrative feature film and, at some point, story, character and dialog are going to have to clear their throats and step into the light (what little there is). Anderson has been above competent in the past as a director of actors. Transsiberian in particular included some of the finest performances of that year. In Vanishing, however, he is content to allow his characters to be painted in broad strokes, to inhabit little more than their motivations. This one wants to leave; this one wants to stay; this one wants to find someone; and this one wants to learn.
I reckon the reason Anderson is uninterested in characters as human is because they are only cogs in his grand, existential, symbolist exercise. They clumsily soliloquize about mortality and the afterlife or about judgment, about individuality, about compassion for your fellow man or just about whatever screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski wants to talk about.
Vanishing on 7th Street has a lot going for it in term of genuine frights and chills and it will no doubt have its defenders in the art-horror sub-genre fan camp. But Anderson is a director from whom we should have come to expect more, to expect something that is complete at least.
If the world works out right, repertory cinemas will someday do series on the works of Brad Anderson. Vanishing on 7th Street, though will likely be the back half of a double bill with Session 9.