Across the span of his career, director Brad Anderson (2001's "Session 9
," 2005's "The Machinist
," TV's "Masters of Horror" entry "Sounds Like") has exhibited a strong, confident command of genre filmmaking that harkens back to a time when horror-thrillers relied on mood and character over more blatant trappings like violence and bloodshed to weave their effective spells. He does it again with "Vanishing on 7th Street," a giddily unnerving offering that gets more mileage from its restraint than it ever could by spelling things out and going for conventional scares (though there is one socko jump-out-of-your-seat moment, too). The plot proper isn't terribly original, but peer beneath the surface and one will find more going on than meets the eye. This, above all else, is where the film should exceed the expectations of audiences who have been trained in recent years by commercial Hollywood cinema to turn their brains off rather than consider a story's or theme's deeper implications. That "Vanishing on 7th Street" even has deeper implications deserves to be seen as something of an achievement.
When a mass power outage occurs across Detroitand, one has to assume, the rest of the worldthe darkness steals with it the majority of the human population. With the sun rising later and setting sooner with each passing day, three strangers who remaintelevision news field reporter Luke (Hayden Christensen), physical therapist Rosemary (Thandie Newton), and AMC multiplex projectionist Paul (John Leguizamo)seek refuge at Sonny's, a corner bar where 12-year-old James (Jacob Latimore) holds court as he feeds the rapidly dwindling electric generator. Struggling to come to terms with the unthinkable as malevolent shadows close in, the four of them eventually figure out the common ground between them: they were all holding or around a light source when the blackout occurred. What will happen to them, then, when they no longer are?
"Vanishing on 7th Street" opens with disquieting eeriness, a mundane evening for movie theater employee Paul turning outright freaky and bizarre when the rest of his co-workers and all the patrons vanish without a trace at the moment of a sudden power outage, their clothes and belongings the only things left behind. Glimpses into Rosemary's and Luke's respective experiences at this crucial moment are also indelible, with Rosemary aghast at the sight of a hospital patient in the midst of open heart surgery who is left horrified and helpless on the operating table before he, too, is snatched up, and Luke waking up the next morning in his apartment beside lit candles before stumbling outside to find a desolate cityscape. Immediately, they begin to get stalked by the shadows on the walls and the darkness surrounding them, pulled off with astonishing efficiency through expertly conceived lighting and visual effects far superior to many other CGI-heavy films with notably larger budgets. It, of course, helps that these elements are critical to the story, used often ingeniously to serve the script and the atmosphere rather than as the frivolous, eye-candied main attractions. Nevertheless, it's one of the main reasons for the picture's suffocating sense of paranoia, the imperiled characters feeling that they are constantly being watched by unknown supernatural forces.
Key flashbacks, all of them aiding in the development of the protagonists, are unobtrusive and minimal, but also powerful. As Luke's extracurricular activities are revealedhe is carrying on an affair with his married co-anchor while still pining for his ex-wifeRosemary's horror in losing her infant son compliments her personal ordeal and James is haunted by a memory of spending time with his bartender mom before she left to find help at a nearby church and never returned. The performances from Hayden Christensen (2008's "Jumper
"), Thandie Newton (2010's "For Colored Girls
"), John Leguizamo (2008's "The Happening
"), and newcomer Jacob Latimore are believable and vulnerable, each one distinct but never made to be orchestrated as the lead or some movie-style hero. This is especially wise once they, too, are gradually swept up by the darkness, their disappearances captured with a startling, matter-of-fact nonchalance that leaves everyone in equal danger and duress.
"Vanishing on 7th Street" is a skillful, compact chiller, unburdened by too many subplots or the tendency to overexplain what is going on. A lesser film would seek answers, but screenwriter Anthony Jaswinski and director Brad Anderson are smart enough to understand their film is more about questions. To tidily provide reason behind the events in the story would be a betrayal of its portentous aura. Conjecture and one piece of evidencethe word "Croatoan" found written on a walllinking things to the infamous 16th-century lost colony of Roanoke is provocative while lending further enigmatic inference to the goings-on. Following a middle section that hushes the pacing and the threat before the urgency of the third act takes over, the picture transforms itself into a poignant, borderline-profound metaphor for the mysteries of death and the helplessness with which we fight our inescapable mortality. In spite of the knowledge that all living things must one day pass on, people struggle with the imprintor lack thereofthey will leave on the world after they are gone. Did they make a difference, or a name for themselves? Will anyone remember in future generations that they even existed? These existential conflicts are, indeed, universal, and the encroaching darkness waiting to pounce on them the moment their lighttheir very life forcefades is symbolic of nothing less than the grimmest unknown specter of them all. Even with hope more or less gone, they fight. For their survival. For their mark on the earth. That's their nature, and our own.