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Entries in VANish [2015] (1)


VANish (2015)

Pre-Owned, Drives Like New!

Something's in the air, folks. For two weeks, I've been deluged with designer-imitation movies. From the Twilight knock-off to the James Bond-parody knock-off to the Clerks/Saw knock-off,* original content seems to have plummeted right off the edge of our creatively flat planet.

And here comes VANish, an indie film whose ingredients don't inspire confidence:

  • First-time writer/director/star
  • Ninety-first filmmaker to riff on idols Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez
  • Thirteen-day shoestring shoot
  • Two genre staples (Danny Trejo and Tony Todd) featured more prominently in the key art than in the actual film
  • An unfortunately timed release that coincides with Joe Lynch's Everly, another single-location shoot-'em-up about a tough, smokin' hot Latina fighting off gangsters.

Wal-Mart dedicates large mesh bins to these movies, which beg to be run past.

Fortunately, low expectations exist to be raised—subverted, even. And that’s precisely what creator Bryan Bockbrader has done with his brainy, balls-to-the-wall crime thriller. At first glance, his characters feel lifted from Pulp Fiction: on their way to kidnap a Mexican drug kingpin's daughter (Emma, played by Maiara Walsh), Jack (Austin Abke) and Max (Bockbrader) discuss the pluses of cutting short bad relationships and the evils of social media. The witty, macho banter gives way to viciousness when the guys reach their destination, abruptly putting us on notice that these aren't lovable-doofus criminals.

After picking up Jack's dimwitted war-vet friend, Shane (Adam Guthrie), the group heads into the desert for a rendezvous with Emma's estranged father (Trejo) and--they hope--five million bucks. The plan goes about as smoothly as one would expect when three imbalanced amateurs take on a man with unlimited guns and henchmen, and I'll leave the crosses, double-crosses, and revelations for you to discover.

Right now, I want to talk about The Room (I promise, there's a movie review in here somewhere). Tommy Wiseau's disasterpiece is considered one of the worst motion pictures ever committed to film, and for good reason. Infinitely watchable as a meta-narrative of bizarre ingredients, it's inconceivable that someone could intentionally come up with Wiseau's outlandish accent and the spoon motif and the groomsmen playing alley-catch football and the flower shop scene. With VANish, Bockbrader cooks up a delightfully nutty bouillabaisse that's just as weird, but which legitimately succeeds on just about every level--instead of dissolving into ironic comedy.

I can't put my finger on just why Bockbrader's references feel like heartfelt tributes and not mere mimicry. Something about Abke's resemblance to Aliens-era Michael Biehn and Guthrie's Harland Williams aura makes me wonder if Bockbrader orchestrated an indie-budget reality of the dream movie he'd cast in his head. Of course, he saves the best lines and the banter-with-the-damsel-in-distress moments for his own character--in the same way that Tarantino cemented not only his place but also his voice in pop history with Reservoir Dogs' "Madonna Speech". Whether through skill or dumb luck (or maybe just my own perception of the material), Bockbrader makes us believe that his characters--not he--grew up on mid-90s crime flicks and watched The Dark Knight's opening heist scene one too many times.

The movie comes up a tad short, visually, thanks to the decision to shoot everything in or around the van. I give Bockbrader big props for his ambition here, and for pulling off ninety percent of it very well. In particular, two important nighttime attacks are difficult to see. Shot in close-ups and in not-as-close-ups, and with very little lighting, we're left to infer a lot of the action--not in the way that inspires us to give the filmmaker credit for artistry, but in the way that we desperately want to scrub backwards and squint (which I did, twice).

VANish's execution is as fascinating as it is fun (and occasionally challenging), but the real attraction here is Walsh. As a character, Emma is a bit too cool a cucumber under the circumstances. But Walsh is so damned good that I didn't mind. She effortlessly imbues the part of sassy-angry-captive with such intensity and self-assuredness that her transformation into a gun-toting superhero feels like a step down. In other films, the violence perpetrated against her would have been played as exploitive sensationalism. But she (Emma or Walsh) won't be exploited--by either the preening male psychos around her or those watching at home. Walsh's screen presence is undeniable, and reminds me of that great scene in Bowfinger where Steve Martin talks about the "It" factor.

Thanks to the movies I listed at the start of this review, I've been thinking a lot about baggage lately; not only what a filmmaker brings to his or her project, but what I bring to the experience of watching movies. Though we should judge each film on its own merits, audiences don't suffer amnesia just before the lights go down. It's not nitpicking to point out a story that relies too heavily on borrowed plot points, re-hashed motifs, and done-to-death character archetypes. In fact, it's our duty as patrons of the arts to pay attention, to experience, to recollect, to put things together in the filmic tapestry of our hearts--so that when something innovative comes along, we can recognize just how special (and rare) the occasion is.  

VANish is one such movie. Bryan Bockbrader wears his influences on his sleeve, but homage doesn't comprise the whole shirt. He has an interesting story to tell, a few things to get off his chest, and a somewhat unique vehicle (sorry) for getting us where we need to go. I doubt this film will change the way anyone looks at movies, but it's a refreshing reminder of the crucial difference between theft and homage.

VANish is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, VOD, iTunes.

*In fairness, that one was okay.