Oh hey look, yet *another* film about Lighthouse keepers going nuts on a remote island. What is it about this setting that fascinates filmmakers so much? Perhaps it’s the fact that a Lighthouse is a symbolic totem of marine law and order, an ancient institution whose detriment means life or death on a grand scale out there, and the collective unravelling of those involved, although making for a terrific campfire yarn, has higher implications once our initial story comes to a close and everyone abandons their post. Who knows, but in any case Kristoffer Nyholm’s The Vanishing is a grim, brutal and ultimately bleak look at three Scottish keepers who make a discovery that leads to distrust, dissent and murder most foul.
A senior keeper (Peter Mullan), a slightly less senior one (Gerard Butler) and a rookie (Connor Swindells) are prepping for a long shift alone on the rock. Less than a week in they find a mysterious row boat, a half dead sailor and a chest full of gold bars. After the stranger attacks them and they’re forced to kill him, more come looking for him and the gold and it sets off a chain reaction of violence, psychological trauma, isolation, cold and madness that has but one possible conclusion. I’m not kidding either, besides the fact that this is called The Vanishing, it’s based on a very true story and despite being speculative nevertheless stays true to reality in the sense that these guys never made it back to the mainland, and possibly not off the rock.
I enjoyed this for its treatment of violence and trauma; in many cases films like these show ordinary men forced into horribly violent situations and suddenly they’re all just hardened killers right after the fact, with no emotion or disturbed feelings to process. I mean it serves the thriller genre well to shunt affairs on like that with little time for introspect or thought, but what of integrity in story or character? This is certainly a thriller and a very effective one, unbearably suspenseful in a few instances. But the performances also reflect just what the act of murder would do to one after, particularly in Gerard Butler’s character who begins to lose his mind and cannot come to terms with what they’ve done. His performance is so beautifully calibrated, so raw and dramatically rewarding it really makes me wonder why he doesn’t do more work like this instead of his silly action pulp and RomCom gloss all the time. Mullan too is exceptional but that’s no surprise, he’s one of those dudes that’s so effortlessly great he could turn in award worthy work in a Hallmark Channel film. Overall this is a tough watch because all three men are initially so likeable and down to earth that when things get harrowing and crazy you really feel for them. It’s a very well constructed, atmospheric thriller but be prepared for a bleak feeling deep down once all is said and done, this isn’t a feel good film, albeit a great one.