A boy’s journey with his father through the Canadian wilderness becomes a frequently mesmerizing if exceedingly strange coming-of-age odyssey in “Disappearances.” Third film in Jay Craven’s trilogy drawn from the work of novelist Howard Frank Mosher is a stirringly acted frontier tale, infused with bewildering magical-realist touches that may prove trying to viewers less attuned to its visual pleasures. Pic’s mobility looks limited beyond fest exposure, placing it on roughly the same commercial footing as the writer-director’s previous efforts.
In his first two Mosher adaptations, “Where the Rivers Flow North” (1994) and “Stranger in the Kingdom” (1998), Craven turned his camera on the rugged geographical and emotional terrain of fictional Kingdom County in rural Vermont. Set in 1932, just months before the end of Prohibition, “Disappearances” tells the story of Quebec Bill Bonhomme (Kris Kristofferson), a grizzled farmer with an irrepressible daredevil streak, who intends to turn a profit by smuggling Canadian whisky across the border.
Fifteen-year-old Wild Bill (Charlie McDermott) elects to go along with his father, at the behest of his aunt Cordelia (vet French-Canadian actress Genevieve Bujold). Not for nothing is Cordelia named Cordelia; she’s often prone to quoting Shakespeare, as well as Milton, at least when she’s not muttering cryptic epigrams at Wild Bill and then vanishing into the ether (one of multiple “disappearances” hinted at by the film’s title).
Father and son set off for Canada, with Quebec Bill’s cautious, disapproving brother-in-law Henry (Gary Farmer) and hired man Rat (William Sanderson). And so begins a tense yet picaresque adventure involving a pair of monks, one of whom (played by Luis Guzman) is a bit of a lush; Carcajou (Lothaire Bluteau), a fearsome gang leader and whisky hijacker; and a trusty automobile named White Lightning.
At a certain point — not long after the Bills steal $2,000 worth of whisky from Carcajou, who turns out to be incapable of staying dead — it becomes clear that Craven’s direction has slipped beneath the surface of reality and gone straight to matters of subtext. Pic’s second half seems to have been made under a whisky-induced spell of its own, as Carcajou turns out to have a mysterious connection with Quebec Bill’s past, while the ghostly Cordelia repeatedly intervenes to offer Wild Bill advice but no clarification.
Exactly what it all means is very much open to debate. Pic is clearly concerned with themes of parentage and the blessings and curses fathers bequeath to their sons.
Craven’s poetic sensibility is steeped in an appreciation of nature, as well as an awareness of man’s ability to exist both in harmony and at odds with it, sometimes simultaneously. At the same time, the tale’s supernatural contrivances clash with the harsh, unforgiving realism of the world in which the characters find themselves stranded.
Perfs are uniformly strong. Kristofferson’s weathered features and irascible charm couldn’t be better tailored to the role of a stubborn yet bracingly optimistic paterfamilias, while McDermott matches his every nuance as the decidedly un-wild Wild Bill.
Wolfgang Held’s widescreen photography emphasizes the chilly grays and blues of the wooded landscapes, while the flavorful score by Judy Hyman and Jeff Claus (who also composed music for “River” and “Kingdom”) adds a crucial element to the film’s exquisite sense of place.