Originally and less vaguely entitled Keepers, the thriller The Vanishing dramatizes the story of three lighthouse keepers (one young, one middle-aged, one getting up there) who resided for a time on a rocky, storm-swept island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides before vanishing four days before Christmas, 1900. We know in advance that the story won’t end happily, so the question is: Will we learn anything about human nature in extremis en route to the foreordained catastrophe?
The short answer is no, but the movie is phenomenally well made and the three actors who fall apart on our watch suffer magnificently. Foremost among them is Peter Mullan, whose face can be studied like a chart: How did that line get there? What habitual expression does that line denote? There’s a map of the human psyche there for them that know to read it. Mullan’s character, Thomas Marshall, has lost what family he had under miserable circumstances and seems surrounded by an aureole of emptiness. It soon infects James Ducat (Gerard Butler), who tearfully left behind a wife and kids but seems bereft beyond reason even before all the bad stuff goes down. The third member of the party, young Donald McArthur (Connor Swindells), is coming apart from the start, plainly out of his histrionic depth. When a storm hits, Mullan’s Marshall greets it in high dudgeon, shouting at the heavens like Lear on the heath. It seems fitting when the three awake to find the cliffside littered with dead gulls: The birds must have swooped in to hear Mullan’s declamations and smashed into the lighthouse.
The disappearance of the Flannan Isles lighthouse keepers has tantalized mystery buffs for over a century, since the poet Wilson Wilfrid Gibson published Flannan Isle in 1912. I’ve read one news story that cites, among possible explanations, “killed by pirates, eaten by seabirds, and even kidnaped by aliens.” The Vanishing features no ETs or even man-eating seabirds, but the tale that the writers Joe Bone and Celyn Jones have cooked up does feature frightening pirate types (among them the unearthly pale Gary Lewis) who come ashore under excruciating circumstances. More should not be said (and for pity’s sake don’t watch the trailer, which spells out more than any critic should) except that the violence when it comes is sudden, brutal, and morally disorienting: Without always meaning to, our protagonists have sinned in their own eyes and fight back against invaders with no confidence that God is on their side. For reasons too tragic to contemplate for long, Butler’s Ducat is pretty sure that God isn’t.
The director is Kristoffer Nyholm, whose name sounds like a Danishization of Christopher Nolan but actually made the second season of the original The Killing as well as the spooky Brit mini-series The Enfield Haunting. He’s a superbly resourceful filmmaker. The scenes inside the lighthouse feel as if they’re happening at sea despite the building’s solidity. Partly it’s the lighthouse’s creaks and groans and shrieks of the wind, partly the tempestuous psyches of the men. Butler looks different here — thicker, more dissolute, his blue eyes turned inward with guilt and horror. Swindells’s face suggests — like his name — the wind that sends waves against rocks.
The Vanishing doesn’t have the fullness of tragedy, to which it aspires. The characters are too punch-drunk too early from the effects of the wind and waves, and the ways in which they turn on one another don’t feel fully set up. Though gifted writers, Bone and Jones (they sound like a pair of pirates) are so steeped in the kind of plays in which actors grab one another’s faces and bellow their lines that the madness seems more like good theater than incisive psychology. But good, harrowing theater it is, plus excellent settings — making this the second film in a few short months to convey the splendid unruliness of Scotland. (The other was The Outlaw King.) Bring a sweater — preferably one of those long woolen fisherman’s sweaters I bought many years ago at the top of Scotland, near the ferry to Orkney — because you’ll feel the chill.
Incidentally, a lighthouse historian recently concluded that Marshall, Ducat, and McArthur were swept away by unusually violent seas when they attempted to secure their equipment — Marshall having been previously fined for neglecting to do so. But for many, the idea that they’re still on some spaceship roaming the galaxy’s equivalent of the Outer Hebrides will never die.