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Few scenarios fill parents with as much dread as the prospect of a missing child. Whether a temporary mix-up at the mall or an experience far more emotionally traumatic, it’s a possibility that can never be completely ignored. With The Vanished, filmmaker and actor Peter Facinelli channels that fundamental fear into a compact, consistently unpredictable thriller that provides few reassurances, but plenty of surprises.
Facinelli’s version of this disturbingly familiar narrative takes place almost entirely outdoors in the Alabama woods, not far from Tuscaloosa. In the opening scenes, the Michaelson family appears much like any other, heading out on a road trip for a long weekend: parents Paul (Thomas Jane) and Wendy (Anne Heche) occupy the front seats of their RV, while 10-year-old daughter Taylor (Kk Heim) and pug Lucky relax in the back.
RELEASE DATE Aug 21, 2020
Wendy leads them all in ragged renditions of road-trip sing-alongs while Paul guides their mobile home to a lakeside campground, where they get a borderline hostile welcome from middle-aged proprietor Tom (John D. Hickman). His groundskeeper Justin (Alex Haydon) isn’t much friendlier, but the family quickly settles in, parked next to a camper occupied by attractive young Miranda (Aleksei Archer) and her husband Eric (Kristopher Wente).
Barely ten minutes pass before Taylor mysteriously disappears, a plot twist worthy of a first-act break, typically after significantly more plot and character development. The inclination to view this as a crucial pacing miscalculation takes some time to dissipate, as it becomes clear that Facinelli has much more in store than the rote elaboration of a standard missing-child drama.
The next plot wrinkle quickly follows, when sheriff Baker (Jason Patric) and deputy Rakes (Facinelli) arrive to investigate Taylor’s disappearance, bringing with them the news that an armed and dangerous escaped convict from a nearby prison may be lurking in the woods surrounding the campground. Although Baker doesn’t think that the fugitive is connected to the missing child, for their own safety he warns Wendy and Paul against participating in law enforcement’s search of the area.
However, the worried parents aren’t remotely inclined to stop looking for their daughter and soon sneak off to do their own late-night sleuthing, leading to a terrible accident. When various bodies begin turning up, the sheriff realizes he may be dealing with something far more sinister than just a missing persons case, as Paul and Wendy relentlessly press him for information on the search for Taylor.
Facinelli, whose extensive acting credits include the Twilight franchise, added directing to his resume with 2018’s Breaking & Exiting, a lighthearted comedy at stylistic odds with The Vanished, which he also scripted. The shift to an edgier tone initially tracks thriller conventions fairly closely, revealing sordid details about the creepy RV park staff, applying Rear Window tropes to question the motivations of helpful neighbors Miranda and Eric and even casting suspicion on alcoholic sheriff Baker, who’s wrestling with his own personal tragedies.
As Paul and Wendy’s attempts to locate Taylor escalate from panicked to desperate and then outright deranged, it begins to look like Facinelli may be changing genres again, shifting to pitch-black comedy. It’s a suspicion largely confirmed by the film’s conclusion, which audiences may respond to with puzzlement, disbelief or amusement, if they don’t abandon the movie outright when the final twist reframes the entire narrative.
Facinelli may not be too particular about the specifics of these reactions, as long as he grabs people’s attention. Certainly, Heche and Jane escalate the stakes with focused frenzy, as their concern for Taylor’s welfare shifts to recrimination and finally all-out hysteria. Taking a tack that subtly escalates tension, Patric doesn’t provide the reassuring counterpoint that one would expect from a dedicated lawman, too wounded by his own failures to prepare the traumatized couple for a tragedy he anxiously anticipates.
When Facinelli finally delivers a denouement that’s virtually impossible to predict, ruthlessly undercutting expectations for the typical missing-child drama, viewers may feel either callously manipulated or unexpectedly rewarded, or possibly both.
Distributor: Saban Films
Production companies: Ingenious Media, The Exchange, SSS Entertainment
Cast: Thomas Jane, Anne Heche, Jason Patric, Peter Facinelli, Aleksei Archer, Kristopher Wente, John D. Hickman, Alex Haydon, Kk Heim
Director-writer: Peter Facinelli
Producers: Andrew Mann, Sasha Yelaun, Jeff Elliott, Brandon Menchen
Executive producers: Nadine Luque, Simon Williams, Shaun Sanghani, Joseph Lanius, Alastair Burlingham, John Jencks, Joe Simpson, Jay Taylor, Brian O’Shea, Nat McCormick, Giovanna Trischitta, Peter Winther, Chris Mullinax, Aleksei Archer, William V. Bromiley, Shanan Becker, Johnathan Saba, Ness Saban
Director of photography: Cory Geryak
Production designer: Burns Burns
Costume designers: Keannu McMurray, Alesha Mitchell
Editor: Vaughn Bien III
Music: Sacha Chaban
Casting directors: Brandy Goleman, Sarah East
Rated R, 115 minutes
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