Disappearances is an elegy to a vanishing way of life, to dearly departed loved ones, and to innocent youth, yet poeticism is nonetheless in short supply in writer-director Jay Craven’s film, his third adaptation of a Howard Frank Mosher novel (after 1994’s Where the Rivers Flow North and 1998’s Stranger in the Kingdom). Mysticism and magic realism collide with gritty frontier realities in this story of an aging Vermont farmer named Quebec Bill (Kris Kristofferson) who, after setting his barn on fire during an experiment to create rain (thus putting the family in financial jeopardy), decides to resume his bootlegging ways by crossing the Canadian border to steal 20 cases of whiskey from notorious criminal Carcajou (Lothaire Bluteau). In this endeavor, Quebec Bill enlists his Iroquois brother-in-law Henry (Gary Farmer), his hired hand Rat (William Sanderson), and his ironically named 15-year-old son Wild Bill (Charlie McDermott), who quickly proves to be the responsible counterpoint to mischievous Dad. Once the booze is snatched, the foursome are driven to disguise themselves as monks (with the help of Luis Guzmán’s boozy religious man) and steal a train while evading Carcajou, whose crazy white hair, long goatee, and penchant for wearing both Union and Confederate military uniforms is no more strange than his apparent inability to die.
Disappearances has all the elements of a lighthearted adventure, and in Kristofferson, it has its ideal leading man, the grizzled actor-musician wielding his roguish cool to perfect effect as the devil-may-care Quebec Bill. Craven, however, layers his film’s central narrative concerns—specifically, Wild Bill’s coming-of-age, as well as the legacy left by fathers to sons—with mounds of metaphorical gunk, most of which proves more ponderous than entrancing. A white owl pops up now and again to foreshadow death, people vanish into thin air, and Wild Bill’s Aunt Cordelia (Genevieve Bujold) appears to the teenager in visions, pretentiously quoting Shakespeare and telling him of his future (“Your wife will be from Quebec” being her most random prophesy). Cordelia’s purpose is clear—to imbue the proceedings with subtextual heft—but her effect is the opposite, the character in due course undermining the spiritual mood fostered by Craven’s contemplative wilderness cinematography with what amounts to regularly scheduled bursts of cryptic gibber-gabber.