The Vanishing (2019) is based on the true story of the disappearance of three lighthouse keepers from Eilean Mor, an island off the west coast of Scotland. On December 7, 1900, Thomas Marshall, James Ducat, and Donald MacArthur began their two week rotation as the keepers of the Flannan Isle Lighthouse. When others arrived to relieve them, the men had disappeared with no evidence to help determine what happened. This movie is a fictionalized account of what may have happened.
In the movie, during their stay at the lighthouse, the men discover a wrecked lifeboat, a dead man, and a wooden chest in one of the small inlets of the island. Peter and James lower donald into the inlet to check on the man and to tie the rope around the chest so they can pull it up the cliff. It turns out the dead man is not so dead, and he’s not too happy with Donald trying to take the chest, so he tries to kill him. A fight breaks out, and Donald ends up killing the man in self defense.
Back in the lighthouse, the three keepers open the chest and find gold bars inside. Unfortunately for them, that’s not where things end. Two men land on the island looking for their missing shipmate and, more importantly, their missing chest. The three keepers deny having seen a man or a chest and the others leave. Thomas knows the men will return and they do, bringing fear and violence with them.
That premise may sound exciting, but The Vanishing is not a thriller. It is a slow burning, tense, character driven drama. There is violence, but this movie is more interested in the things that drive men to violence and the repercussions of that violence on those men. Most of the movie consists of the relationship of Thomas, Donald, and James, and how things like greed, guilt, and paranoia fracture that relationship. That fact, and the fact that the vast majority of the movie’s 101 minutes consists of only those three characters, makes it imperative that the actors be capable of holding our attention. Luckily, all three actors are fantastic.
Peter Mullen (Ozark) plays Thomas, the first in command. He is grieving the loss of his wife and children, and he struggles to find balance between the sorrow and regret of his losses and the level headedness and calm required to lead the other men through their stay on the island. Mullen portrays that struggle perfectly. His best scene (and one of the best scenes of the movie) is when he is alone in the island’s small chapel talking to his wife and he breaks down, apologizing for letting her die. It’s an impactful scene and a great bit of acting.
Connor Swindells plays Donald, the young “rookie” of the bunch. I was surprised to find out this is Swindells’ first acting role in a movie, because he was fantastic. Donald is an immature, emotional, and impulsive character, and Swindell was able to portray all of those things without going over the top or being melodramatic.
My favorite performance was Gerard Butler as James. I am a big fan of Butler, but even I would admit he hasn’t shown much range in his career. To this point, he has mostly played manly characters that are either crass, stoic, cocky, or some combination of those three. My point is, the word subtle never really came to mind when I thought of him.
Surprisingly, he is incredible in this role. I think a couple things helped him. First, he is able to speak with his natural Scottish accent. I think that helped him act more naturally, instead of constantly having to focus on speaking with an American accent. Secondly, for much of the first half of the movie, his character is in the background. Thomas is established as the leader, so a lot of the initial focus is on him. Then, once Donald kills the man in the lifeboat, much of the focus is on him dealing with his feelings about that. James is there for all of this, but he is not the focus of the movie at that point. Despite Butler being a considerably more well known actor, the movie treats him as just one of the guys. That and Butler’s subdued portrayal helped me see the character, James, instead of just seeing Gerard Butler.
Butler plays James as a kind man and a good coworker and the core of the group. He is good friends with Thomas and a friendly, big brother type of mentor to Donald. He is supportive of Thomas when he struggles with the grief of losing his wife, and of Donald when he struggles to cope with killing a man. Later in the movie, James commits an act that causes him to unravel mentally. He is tormented with guilt, causing him to become distant from Thomas and Donald and eventually paranoid that they are turning against him. The transformation in James from the beginning of the movie to the end is a drastic one and it could have easily felt forced, if it had been a poor performance. Butler is great, though, and it’s probably the best performance I’ve seen of his.
My main issue with The Vanishing is that it never really feels exciting. Slow burning movies are supposed to gradually build tension throughout, then peak with a payoff to that tension. This one never gets to that point. It has a moment of tension, then that tension ebbs away. Then we get another scene of tension, and that too fades away. Instead of a slow climb towards a climax, this is just an ebb and flow of tension that rarely veers from the baseline. The worst part is, there is no climactic scene. It felt, to me, like there was very little payoff in the end.
Overall, The Vanishing feels feels like it tries to be a mystery/thriller mixed with a character drama. Instead, though it had some good moments of each, the two never mesh very well and the result is a flat story with a mixed tone that never really takes off like it should. Luckily the actors all do an outstanding job of bringing their characters to life, which helped keep me engaged when the story couldn’t.
RATING: 6.25 out of 10 (B-)