Director: Kristoffer Nyholm
Cast: Gerard Butler, Peter Mullan, Connor Swindells, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Gary Lewis, Søren Malling
Runtime: 1 hr 47 mins
Rating: NC-16 (Coarse Language and Violence)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 17 January 2019
Synopsis: From the producers of HACKSAW RIDGE comes THE VANISHING, starring Gerard Butler, Peter Mullan and Connor Swindells; a thrilling tale inspired by a true, unsolved legend, the Flannan Isle mystery... On an uninhabited island, 20 miles from the rugged Scottish coast, three lighthouse keepers arrive for their six-week shift. As they settle into their usual, solitary routines, something unexpected and potentially life-changing occurs – they stumble upon something that isn’t theirs to keep. Where did it come from? Who does it belong to? A boat appears in the distance that might hold the answer to these questions… What follows is a tense battle for survival as personal greed replaces loyalty – and fed by isolation and paranoia, three honest men are led down a path to destruction.
Originally titled ‘Keepers’, ‘The Vanishing’ is based off the true story of three lighthouse keepers who disappeared from a Scottish isle in 1900. Till today, no one really knows what happened to these three men (although the theories that abound include them being murdered by pirates), so much as it is inspired by real events, this is necessarily a work of fiction.
That starting point could have been ripe for any sort of mystery thriller, but in the hands of writers Celyn Jones and Joe Bone, we are instead served with ‘A Simple Plan-like’ scenario where the unexpected discovery of riches quickly leads to greed, violence and paranoia. Even so, you shouldn’t expect a gripping tale full of twists and turns; instead, it is pretty much a bare-bones melodrama, jazzed up with some nice atmospherics by Danish director Kristoffer Nyholm.
To Nyholm’s credit, he tries to craft a compelling character study of our three protagonists. Thomas (Peter Mullan) is a crusty widower who has lost his wife and children under miserable circumstances, and wears his bereftness on his sleeves. James (Gerard Butler) is an affable family man who needs the work, and whose fatherly instincts make him the guardian of their young apprentice Donald (Conner Swindell). Not only is he new to the trade and therefore needing to learn the ropes, Donald is clearly out of his depth even before things go bad for them.
But after setting up these characters, the circumstances that test these individuals are sadly less than compelling. There is strong promise at the start, when the three men find an apparently dead man and his rowboat washed up in a crevasse the morning after a storm – turns out the man isn’t so dead after all, and after a brief but intense tussle, they retrieve his wooden trunk that they find is filled with gold bars. As David’s murderous act strains him mentally to breaking point, two of the dead man’s shipmates arrive looking for their friend and his treasure, leading to an even bloodier confrontation that leaves all three of them struggling thereafter with the psychological repercussions of their own actions.
Try as he does to build tension and suspense throughout these events, there is only so much Nyholm can do with a script that is frankly too spare for its own good. David’s meltdown is more convincing because of how his character has been set up in the first place, but James’ similar predicament is much less persuasive, especially when we are supposed to be led to believe that he will be traumatised to the point that his fear and distrust gets the better of him. The last act pretty much hinges on us buying into that, and it doesn’t help that the build-up is devoid of much excitement or urgency.
Pity then that the actors do put in great work which makes the best out of the much-to-be-desired characterisation. Mullan effectively underplays his role as their elder leader whose attempts at keeping them together come off to increasingly little avail. Swindell makes a memorable debut playing the callow youth who is the first among them to come apart, but sobers up when James becomes even more unhinged. And last but not least is Butler, who demonstrates his impressive dramatic chops portraying his character’s unravelling at the bloodshed of his own doing. Lest we think Butler is only good for playing the hero in well-made but effectively B-grade action movies, his performance here shows the Scottish actor rising to the occasion when the role calls for it.
Or it could also be the fact that Butler was a lot more committed to this movie than he is to his usual action fare, seeing as how his own production company is behind it. Having grown up in Scotland and heard the tales about Flannan Isle must have inspired him to turn it into a tale of mystery and suspense, but ‘The Vanishing’ ultimately falls short because of its scant plotting. Otherwise, Nyholm does a fine job turning this into a moody and atmospheric piece, complemented by strong performances all around; and for those reasons, we’d say this is still worth a watch before it vanishes (we suspect quickly) from the cinema.
(Depending on how patient you are, this based-off-a-true-story crime melodrama is either suspenseful and atmospheric, or slow and ponderous)
Review by Gabriel Chong