||Regional writers often resort to magic realism, and if this film based on one of his books is any indication, that seems to be the case with Maine author Howard Frank Mosher. “Disappearances” is fundamentally a coming-of-age story, but one told with a heavy dose of surreal mystery and dark whimsy—too heavy, in fact. The affectation drains the picture of energy and leaves it seeming arch and turgid.
The story is set in the waning days of Prohibition, and centers on the rural Bonhomme clan of King County. The head of the family is grizzled Quebec Bill (Kris Kristofferson), who used to run booze across the Canadian border but is now trying to make it as a farmer while raising his son Wild Bill (Charlie McDermott). The family’s an extended one, including Bill’s sister Cordelia (Genevieve Bujold), who teaches Wild Bill in highly literary terms and is prone to talk about “disappearances” among them, especially of her father long ago, and Rat (William Sanderson), an ex-con who serves as the farm’s hired hand. A bit further afield there’s Quebec Bill’s likable brother-in-law Henry (Gary Farmer), an easygoing guy with a car called White Lightning that he uses to transport both booze and human customers.
The plot per se kicks in when Quebec Bill runs into some financial difficulty and decides to save the farm by running a booze shipment from across the border. He enlists Henry in the operation and takes Wild Bill along, too. The resultant adventure involves them with a couple of oddball monks, one (Luis Guzman) with an appetite for liquor, as well as a crook named Carcajou (Lothaire Bluteau), who apparently has nine lives and a secret identity. Bars, boats, cars and even a runaway locomotive are all parts of the plot, too. Wild Bill, it appears, learns much from all the outlandish goings-on about life and about family, especially of the disappearing variety.
But we learn considerably less. There are incidental moments in the movie that create an intoxicating atmosphere, helped immeasurably by the painterly widescreen cinematography of Wolfgang Held and a score by Judy Hyman and Jeff Claus that enhances the local color.
Otherwise, though, “Disappearances” strives too hard for a feeling of ponderous quaintness and profundity. As director Jay Craven works strenuously to invest his adaptation with a sort of mystical weight, but the result is that everything seems italicized. And the cast add to the effortful character. Kristofferson brings his usual grumpy charm to the proceedings, but not much else, and McDermott is frankly quite weak, his line readings often amateurish, though he’s a pleasant enough young fellow. Bujold remains a lovely presence, but she’s stuck with a lot of the piece’s most pretentious bits: she tries to manage the trick by underplaying, but still can’t conceal the preciousness. Guzman and Sanderson are both fun in their customarily broad fashion, and Farmer in his affably understated one, but they’re peripheral figures. And Bluteau opts for scenery-chewing that takes things into the realm of parody.
It may very well be that on the printed page “Disappearances” is a deeply affecting tale. But in Craven’s adaptation, it feels labored, a bit of backwoods magical realism that wants to soar but never takes off.