We truly are lucky to have the three movies Jay Craven has made from novels by Howard Frank Mosher. Where the Rivers Flow North, A Stranger in the Kingdom and the latest, Disappearances, comprise a cultural time capsule that transcends film entertainment. They pay tribute to the work of one of the state's irreplaceable literary voices. They broaden the audience for that body of work, and they preserve for future generations the sights and sounds of a Vermont that has all but disappeared.
And while they may transcend film entertainment, these films are dependably entertaining. Adapted from Mosher's award-winning 1977 book -- his first published -- Craven's new movie is a wild ride back in time to the Northeast Kingdom of 1932 and the final days of Prohibition. Kris Kristofferson stars as Quebec Bill Bonhomme, an "over-the-hill outlaw" who has traded drinking and whiskey running for the quiet life of a father and farmer. At least until a building on his property is struck by lightning and burns to the ground, leaving him at the end of a long, hard winter with no hay to keep his livestock alive.
Bonhomme is a colorful, complex character who's seen and done it all, and who realizes he's fortunate to have settled down with a beautiful wife (Heather Rae) and doting son. He doesn't just stop to smell the roses. He finds wonder and beauty everywhere, even in the flames that consume his barn; he pauses as he leads the animals out and remarks, "Spectacular!"
Also sharing the place are William Sanderson as farm hand Rat Kinneson and Genevieve Bujold in the role of Quebec Bill's schoolteacher mother, Cordelia. She's a particularly intriguing creation. When she's not reminding her grandson (played nicely by 15-year-old Charlie McDermott) to read his Shakespeare on a daily basis, she's tossing off words of sage-like wisdom and appearing out of thin air to offer the boy guidance in times of crisis.
The frequency of these surreal intercessions increases dramatically once Kristofferson concludes that his only hope for financial survival lies in a return to whiskey smuggling. Gary Farmer gives a fabulous performance as Henry Coville, Bonhomme's Iroquois brother-in-law and a giant, fedora'ed teddy bear. He's approached by a pair of Canadians who offer him $1000 to transport a shipment of purloined Seagrams product across the border in his beloved roadster, White Lightning. Kristofferson's been around this block often enough to sense that double and triple crosses await them; he convinces his wife that a "scouting mission" up north is in order to check things out.
This is where the real fun starts. At this point, Craven shifts his film into high gear, stomps on the gas, and steers straight for a magical backwoods of bootlegger monks, rival hijacking gangs, music-filled mountain honky-tonks, steam trains that have a way of vanishing into forest mist, and longhaired men with machine guns. Not to mention a mystifying wild man who pursues Quebec Bill and his crew.
Not every fable about the bond between fathers and sons includes a chapter in which both take a human life; and in few coming-of-age stories does an adolescent boy come along on a mission this treacherous. Disappearances seamlessly alternates between darkness and light, the everyday and the otherworldly, and manages more laughs along the way than do a great many Hollywood comedies.
Shot in the Northeast Kingdom and northern New Hampshire, the movie is written with a faultless ear for period dialogue. It's hauntingly scored by Jeff Claus and Judy Hyman, and enlivened by dandy work from Craven regulars such as Rusty DeWees and Bill Raymond as well as Tinseltown vets Sanderson, Bujold and Luis Guzman.
And then there's Kristofferson, whom Jay Craven has snagged at a singularly serendipitous moment. The legendary singer-songwriter, who'll turn 70 in June, is presently riding a wave of critical acclaim for This Old Road. The stripped-down collection is being hailed as a career highpoint, and is his best-selling release in decades. The interest in Kristofferson's recharged career certainly won't hurt when it comes to attracting the attention of major distributors. According to Craven, Paramount, Sony Classics, New Line and the Weinstein Company have asked to take a look, and another four have already made offers. My guess is, they'll all like what they see.
Kristofferson's screen legacy is perhaps as underappreciated as his recording one was until recently. With 96 films to his credit, he's appeared in a remarkable array of movies, from Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia ('74) and Scorsese's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore ('75) to Alan Rudolph's Trouble in Mind ('86) and John Sayles' Lone Star ('96). The performance he gives in Craven's latest is understated and restrained and yet brimming with humor and life, the actor gives a veritable master class in making it look easy. He's worked with some of the best. In Disappearances, we see some of the best work he's ever done.