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Myth or Reality

Vermont "Frontier Film" is about tradition, family and the transition to manhood


When a mysterious fire destroys his barn and winter supply of hay, Quebec Bill Bonhomme (Kris Kristofferson) resorts to running Canadian whiskey across the border to raise money to feed his livestock. Quebec Bill is an old hand at running whiskey and relishes the need to return to that activity in spite of a promise to never pursue that line of business again. Participating in this endeavor is a reluctant relative Henry Colville, played by the formidable Gary Farmer, who has as much attention-getting presence on the screen as any actor. Joining them are Rat Kinneson (William Sanderson) and Quebec Bill's son, Wild Bill (Charlie McDermott). Kinneson goes along because he hangs out with these guys, and Wild Bill goes because this father thinks it's time to turn him into a man. However, Disappearances is more than an adventure saga pitting a desperate family resorting to illegal means to try to save their farm. It's also about the passage of Wild Bill from youth to manhood and the bizarre history and relationships of this unusual family in Vermont in 1932.

Disappearances follows Where the Rivers Run North (1994) and A Stranger in the Kingdom (1998) as the third film in the Vermont "frontier films" trilogy. All three films are directed by Jay Craven, based on the writings of Howard Frank Mosher and produced by Kingdom County Productions. All three are inhabited by quirky characters with strange names such as Bangor, Rat, Carcajou and Resolved. All three have their roots in the history of the "Northeast Kingdom" of Vermont, a term used to describe its three northeast counties. And all three films feature the lush picturesque Vermont countryside. A Stranger in the Kingdom is the most captivating, whereas Disappearances is more light-hearted and mysterious. The strongest performances are from Rip Torn in Rivers and Kristofferson in Disappearances

It's refreshing to see Kristofferson in a major film role again. In Disappearances, he plays a man living at a point just slightly beyond reality. When his barn burns down Quebec Bill sees it as a time for celebrating rather than a tragedy. When misfortunes occurs in this film, and they frequently do, it's Quebec Bill's cheerful responses that sustain the other characters and maintain the film's easy-going atmosphere. 

Disappearances may remind the viewer of a New England western, with its outdoor setting and conflict between good and evil. But this film is more complex and interesting than a simple western. No person has exclusive rights to good or evil. The "good" people break the law, too. The women in Disappearances including Boise resident Heather Rae as Evangeline, Wild Bill's mother, live in a different world than the men. The men are driven by their need for money and adventure while the women speak in riddles and move around like ghosts in a world controlled by men. The misnamed Wild Bill is perplexed by his unusual family history, which includes strange inexplicable disappearances. "Did you ever notice there's something a bit odd about everyone on my dad's side of the family?" Wild Bill asks, but never receives a direct answer. Wild Bill seems to be less "wild" than any other male character in the film. Perhaps he was given that name by Quebec Bill, who wanted a more adventurous son, and this whiskey-running trip is not as much about saving the farm as it is about showing Wild Bill how to live up to his name. Wild Bill is about to move from boyhood into manhood and thereby tighten his connection to his past. "My dad took me on a whiskey run when I was about your age," Quebec Bill says. Since his grandfather disappeared 30 years earlier, Wild Bill is concerned about his father disappearing as well.

Disappearances does not hesitate to explore the myths and legends as well as the facts about the past. Kristofferson does a fine job of depicting the aging, but unrealistically optimistic Quebec Bill. In spite of injuries and broken whiskey bottles, Quebec Bill is upbeat and sure that things will turn out fine. The young Wild Bill makes the transition to manhood just when another man is needed. His new maturity will do much more to save the farm than any profits from the sale of illegal whiskey. McDermott does a capable job of meeting this difficult acting challenge.

Genevieve Bujold, playing the part of the aged Cordelia, seems infused with wisdom and keeps her family connected to their past. There's a strong steady performance by Rae as the perplexed Evangeline who seems unable to understand the strange men in her life, and keeps a safe distance between them and herself.

Disappearances is a lively and intimate look at a faltering family. It's enriched with invigorating music, top-notch acting, and an excellent script, all of which result in a very positive and pleasing film experience.

Special screenings with director Jay Craven, Friday, July 6, and Saturday July 7 at 7 p.m. Craven will present Disappearances on both nights and will be available for questions. The Flicks, 646 Fulton St., 208-342-4222.