Without any doubt at all Fabrice du Welz's Vinyan has been one of the most anticipated films of the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival amongst genre film fans. Du Welz has a proven track record as a director with a compellingly unique viewpoint, a man not afraid to challenge and punish his audience, and with a cast as strong as he has here with a premise as compelling, it has been hard to imagine him going too far wrong. The down side to this, of course, is that with high expectations comes a high risk of disappointment.
Rufus Sewell and Emmanuelle Beart star as a married couple in Thailand trying to cope with tragedy. Six months previous they arrived in the south east Asian nation for a family vacation with their young son only to be caught in the catastrophic tsunami that swept the region, leaving stacks of dead in its wake. The couple survived unscathed, but their son ... he was swept away by the wave, his body never discovered. And while losing a child may be a brutal thing to experience it's that last bit that makes it all the harder: with no body to confirm that their son has indeed died the pair have been unable to entirely give up hope that he is somehow still out there, still alive, just waiting to be found. And so they have never left.
When we first meet the couple they appear okay on the surface but it is quickly obvious that things are degrading rapidly beneath their civil veneer. She is just barely holding it together, he is trying to be supportive but also increasingly convinced that his wife's obsession is unhealthy. She is still buying new clothes for their son, reasoning that he will have outgrown his old ones by the time they find him. She dreams of him nightly. And her obsession is driven to a fever pitch when she sees a child wearing a Manchester United jersey in a video shot in a remote Burmese village. Never mind that millions of these shirts have been bought and sold, this was the same shirt that her son was wearing when he was swept away and, therefore, in her mind this blurry, indistinct child must be hers. And she must save him, whatever the cost.
And so the couple go in search of a guide who can take them over the closed border and into Burmese territory, a guide to take them to the remote villages where the video was shot. That the only possible option is a local gangster who travels to Burma to buy girls to pimp out in Phuket sex clubs is no issue, he can get them there and so he is hired. And things go just as badly as you'd expect them to.
Vinyan starts as potent, gripping stuff. Sewell and Beart are both totally committed to their roles, both baring themselves emotionally to a remarkable degree. Du Welz shows us a Thailand that we don't see in the tourist brochures, a Thailand that is down and dirty, where - even in the wake of a catastrophe - life is cheap and cash is king. The first act is potent, compelling stuff but, sadly, once the duo get on the boat to Burma things gradually unravel.
While it's hard to put a finger on exactly where things go wrong there is an obvious pacing and editing problem with the picture. As we push deeper into the wild, as we move farther away from civilization, the tension should rise accordingly but instead it just kind of tails off and loses the emotional impact it had in the early going. That Beart and Sewell both are given very little to do, very little in the way of character arcs, certainly doesn't help. That Du Welz seems to have focused on composing iconic images - which he absolutely does - while neglecting to imbue them with the sort of meaning that would actually make them iconic helps even less. The farther you go into the film the more you realize that either the film makers are just kind of making it up as they go or that the film has been subjected to heavy editing as several scenes seem to jump from place to place with no cohesion at all and little attention paid to basic continuity. Is Du Welz perhaps trying to create a sort of nightmare world, following that sort of shifting dream logic? Could be, but it doesn't quite seem to work on that level, either.
In the end Vinyan is one of those frustrating 'almost' films - a film blessed with a stellar cast, compelling premise and visual style to spare but ultimately let down by a script that just doesn't seem quite finished. It could be a great film, it's got almost all of the elements in place. But almost just doesn't quite get you there.