Vanishing Point veers away from virtually every last stale formula. There aren't any meandering subplots or supporting characters to distract. Kowalski hardly ever steps outside the Dodge Challenger, and because he's almost always in the car by himself -- there's no love interest or wisecrack-spewing sidekick riding shotgun -- he barely has any dialogue to deliver at all. I've seen very few movies where the lead is saddled with this little to say. Rather than plod through some extended setup, Vanishing Point opens in medias res with the highway patrol setting up a barricade to stop Kowalski dead in his tracks, and his backstory is revealed entirely through police reports and a few hazy flashbacks. The film takes its time revealing who Kowalski is and deliberately avoids answering most of the dangling questions surrounding him, and he's not pitted against any sort of stock villain. Vanishing Point prefers to keep Kowalski's motivations draped in shadow, but this isn't an assault or some act of rebellion. Savagely beaten down by the world around him, Kowalski's driving because that's all he has left, and there's no malice behind it at all. The movie closes on a note that shrugs off every last one of the usual expectations, and it's abstract enough to open itself up
On one hand, I respect the fact that Vanishing Point bucks so many conventions. Much like Two Lane Blacktop -- released the same year, coincidentally -- I never felt as if I'd been watching a marginally different take on a formula I'd seen however many dozens of times before. At the same time, though, Vanishing Point seems to keep itself at arm's length. The ambiguity swirling around Kowalski and why, exactly, he's doing this is the only narrative hook the movie has. Kowalski becomes a folk hero over the course of an hour and a half, but I can't pretend to share that same connection to him or the plot as a whole. While there's certainly something infectious about Cleavon Little's manic, unrestrained turn as Super Soul, so much of his dialogue comes across as rambling, pretentious, and empty. Kowalski stopping to pick up a pair of pre-Prop 8 stereotypes who've just gotten hitched and an extended visit with faith healers in the desert seem like pointless derailments. The primary difference between the domestic and UK cuts on this disc -- a romp with Charlotte Rampling spewing streams of pot smoke and profundity -- does fill in some gaps in the storytelling but seems strangely disconnected from the rest of the movie at the same time. Then again, this is a flick that's teeming with plenty of "...wait, what?!" moments like that, like a smalltown disc jockey with ESP who can be heard across four states and Kowalski's complete lack of surprise that a naked girl piddling around on a motorcycle has a 10th grade collage paying homage to him handy.
I dunno. Vanishing Point is a movie that seems to be almost universally revered, but I'll admit to not being quite sure what to make of it. I never found myself shaking my head or staring longingly at my watch -- it's hard to be bored by a movie that sends a muscle car careening across the screen at breakneck speeds for the better part of two hours straight -- but I didn't feel all that drawn into the flick either. I get the sense that Vanishing Point has deluded itself into thinking it's a lot deeper and more profound than it really is, and while I respect the fact that it's willing to take its storytelling so far left of center, I just don't feel like there's anything for me to latch onto. Vanishing Point has legions of fans, and this review is one of a straggling few online that doesn't count as much of a rave. I'll acknowledge that I'm in the minority here. I'm glad I took the time to watch Vanishing Point, but I have to admit that I don't see myself stepping up to watch it again anytime soon. Rather than dive headfirst into the deep end of this cult classic, first timers might want to opt for a rental instead.
Shot on the cheap nearly forty years ago, Vanishing Point doesn't exactly dazzle in high definition. This Blu-ray disc looks to be a fairly faithful representation of the movie's gritty, rough-hewn photography, though. While I do get the impression that there's at least some processing or filtering at work here, much of the film grain is thankfully still retained. There's a reasonably strong sense of detail and texture when the camera's closed in tight, although that fades away almost entirely in the many panoramic shots. Overall, definition and detail tend to be lackluster, but it's about what I'd expect for a low-budget movie of this vintage. I did spot some ringing around edges, but this appears to date back to the original photography rather than stemming from awkward edge enhancement. The extras on Vanishing Point make it clear that this was a run-and-gun shoot with a skeleton crew, and considering how rushed, underlit, and underfunded the movie was, I can't really picture it looking much better than what this Blu-ray disc has to offer.
Vanishing Point sports a 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, but viewers should stroll in with reasonable expectations; its age, meager budget, and limited dynamics leave it tough to distinguish from a lossy, low bitrate Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Even with the snarl of this Detroit muscle and a slew of violent wrecks, bass response is light. The surrounds are reserved mostly for reinforcing the music scattered throughout and the pans of cars careening across the screen. The mix really doesn't take all that many liberties with the original monaural audio -- which purists will be happy to hear is also available -- and the stereo and surround effects never come across as forced or gimmicky. It's also worth mentioning that the film's dialogue sounds dated but is rendered reasonably cleanly and clearly. Vanishing Point sounds exactly the way I expected it to, really. This lossless soundtrack doesn't belie the age of the film, and I doubt it's much of a sonic upgrade over the DVD release, but it's good enough.
Also included are Dolby Digital monaural tracks (224Kbps) in English, French, and Spanish. Subtitle streams are served up in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin, and Vanishing Point offers support for D-Box bass shaker rigs.
The Final Word
Vanishing Point is the least visceral of the four car chases flicks to bow this week from Fox and MGM, and its awkward mix of action and arthouse pretensions might leave it better suited as a rental for the uninitiated. I have to admit that this isn't a movie I see myself giving another spin anytime soon. For established fans of this cult classic, though, Vanishing Point is an easy recommendation on Blu-ray, boasting a technical polish that's at least passable as well as a handful of high-def retrospectives.