3½ stars (out of four)
The sometimes magical people who populate the movie "Disappearances"--primarily a feisty Vermont clan on a raid to steal illegal Canadian whiskey from a notorious whiskey pirate during Prohibition--obviously don't know their own limitations. Led by an aging ex-bootlegger named Quebec Bill (Kris Kristofferson, in a role that's perfect for him), they're a frowzy little wild bunch that includes Quebec Bill, Q.B.'s boy Wild Bill (Charlie McDermott), Q.B.'s philosophical Iroquois brother-in-law Henry (Gary Farmer), and his bad-tempered hired hand Rat (William Sanderson). All of them are chasing a dangerous dream of romantic outlawry that tends to explode, amusingly but also scarily, in their faces.
The moviemakers don't know their own limitations either. "Disappearances" was shot for only $1.7 million, but it's a thoroughly entertaining, first-class job in every way--something we can apparently expect from the excellent Vermont-based director-writer-producer Jay Craven. The cast, which also includes Genevieve Bujold as Bill's sister Cordelia and Lothaire Bluteau as the whiskey pirate Carcajou, is absolutely wonderful. The widescreen color cinematography of the Vermont and Canadian wilds is uncommonly beautiful, spacious and poetic. And the script is a rollicking, literate delight with dark, sad undertones.
"Disappearances"--based, like two other Craven movies, "Where the Rivers Flow North" and "A Stranger in the Kingdom," on a novel by Howard Frank Mosher--has all the virtues of independent filmmaking and few of the drawbacks. The movie looks like far more than a million dollars and it offers the kind of smart, picaresque good time you get from books like "The Reivers" and "Huckleberry Finn" and movies like "Bronco Billy" and "Bonnie and Clyde."
Mosher wrote "Disappearances" in 1976 in a public library that straddles the border between Vermont and Canada. And the movie, like the book, uses the metaphor of border crossings in a hip, high-spirited way, along with old-fashioned trains, river runs and rites of passage. Wild Bill is our focal point, growing up here as he watches his irresponsible dad run amok for what may the last wild time. We see this world and its charming, crazy wonders through the boy's fresh eyes: the rivers and forests; the mysterious appearances and disappearances of magical realist Cordelia, who materializes like talkative mist; the slightly plastered Benedictine monk Brother St. Hilaire (or "Hilarious," as Quebec Bill calls him) played by Luis Guzman; the patriarchal crook Carcajou who bewilderingly appears in both Union and Confederate Civil War uniforms; and Henry's fast, scrappily elegant car "White Lightning," which gets less elegant as the games get rougher and deadlier.
Watching all these people, seeing and hearing all these intoxicating sights and sounds, you may be tempted to call out "Bravo!" Or maybe "Whiskey forever! Prohibition never!" You'll have a chance.
Director-writer Craven will appear for audience discussion at the 7 p.m. Friday and 7:45 p.m. Saturday Siskel Center firstname.lastname@example.org
Directed and written by Jay Craven; based on the novel by Howard Frank Mosher; photographed by Wolfgang Held; edited by Beatrice Sisul; music by Judy Hyman and Jeff Claus; production design by Carl Sprague; produced by Craven, Hathalee Higgs, J. Todd Harris, Mark Donadio, Miriam Marcus. A Kingdom County Productions release; opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Running time: 1:43. No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for violence, language and drinking).
Quebec Bill - Kris Kristofferson
Wild Bill - Charlie McDermott
Cordelia - Genevieve Bujold
Henry Coville - Gary FarmerCopyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times