There are likely earlier examples of these kinds of knotty “clinical thrillers,” but this might be the point where it crystallized into the perfect psychotic mutant. A full decade before David Fincher would take a crack at them, Dutch director George Sluizer rightfully won acclaim for this adaptation of Tim Krabbé’s novel The Vanishing. A pretty straight line can be drawn between this film and the reverse-engineered whodunnit of Gone Girl or the fake-real-fake wormhole of The Game, but Krabbé, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, doesn’t indulge in pulp or sleaze or fake-outs. He’s more interested in quiet, foreboding menace, which makes it about a thousand times more unnerving than it already would be.
It’s a chillingly simple premise: Rex and Saskia (Eugene Bervoets and Joanna ter Steege) are on vacation in France. During a pit spot for gas and snacks, Saskia disappears without a trace. Rex spends the rest of the day waiting for her to come back. She doesn’t. The film then follows the man responsible: Raymond Lemorne (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, amazing), a seemingly-normal family man with twisted, sociopathic tendencies. He has decided that he will commit the most heinous act he can think of to more or less prove the duality of his being. The banality of evil is one thing, but committing an act of pure conceptual evil as a perverse philosophical exercise brings it to a whole new level of sickening.
The Vanishing is basically a puzzle narrative, but instead of mining the tension from finding out who the killer is, it comes from finding out what the killer has specifically done. The story hinges on a twisted boasting, where the only way the perfect crime can fail is if the perp is just compelled to tell someone, which is as frightening a concept as they come. And Sluizer makes it clear that this would have been the perfect crime: Lemorne is meticulous to a fault about his crime, jotting down relevant info in a notebook, learning new languages to widen his pool of victims, and even using himself as a guinea pig to test out chloroform. So as an amateur sleuth, Rex wouldn’t normally stand a chance. He’s not trying assemble a jigsaw puzzle, he’s trying to put a shredded photograph back together. And yet, perhaps foolishly, he persists. The events are all guided by a sure hand, unraveling expertly over time like a bad, bad feeling, until that gut-punch of an ending comes around. A powerful piece of filmmaking.