When I first learned that there is a barely-advertised Gerard Butler movie about lighthouse keepers opening on demand this month, I thought for sure this would be a fun watch like Geostorm or Hunter Killer. Boy was I wrong. Turns out, this movie, The Vanishing, is about the Flannan Isles Mystery, in which three lighthouse keepers vanished from a Scottish lighthouse in 1900. Still, could be a cheesy horror movie, right? Something spoo-oo-ooky is haunting the lighthouse and Gerard Butler has to fight a ghost, perhaps? Nope, wrong again. The Vanishing uses the Flannan Isles Mystery to stage a slow, methodical psychological drama-thriller about loneliness, grief, violence, and, maybe, mercury poisoning. It’s a dark, unhappy movie about dark, unhappy people doing dark, unhappy things. It’s actually kind of good?
Butler stars as James Ducat, one of three doomed lighthouse keepers responsible for the Flannan Isles light on Eilean Mor in the Outer Hebrides. He is joined by Thomas Marshall (Peter Mullan, who has become the kind of actor that should pretty much always play lonely lighthouse keepers), and Donald McArthur (Connor Swindells). These are the three men who disappeared in 1900, but The Vanishing is less interested in that story and more interested in its invented tale of greed and doom. I’m always a little divided on attempts to explain unsolved mysteries, but for what it is trying to do, The Vanishing mostly succeeds.
Director Kristoffer Nyholm (Taboo, The Killing) gets into the moody, windswept hills and cliffs of Eilean Mor (which is really the Killantringan Lighthouse in Portpatrick), and as we have recently seen in Outlaw King and Mary Queen of Scots, Scotland is portrayed as a beautiful but harsh land that does not suffer weakness. The icy gray of the Atlantic stretches endlessly around the small island, and the wind wails constantly outside. It’s an unforgiving, inhospitable place, and it is completely understandable when things start going sideways that the first response of the three keepers is, pretty much, total insanity.
The proposed explanation for the disappearance is that a dead body with a trunk full of gold washes ashore, which brings with it temptation and greed, and also the other criminals who want their gold. After a bloody confrontation, Ducat does a Bad Thing which drives him mad, and then it’s just a matter of time before everyone is dead. Certainly “they murdered each other” has been a theory for the Flannan Isles Mystery, but this particular series of events is overwrought and, honestly, unneeded. Their isolation is so extreme, the conditions so inhospitable, there really isn’t any need for outside threat or motivation. But this is the story we get, where greed begets violence begets more violence, until the fated tragedy occurs.
There are a few quirks that don’t really work, chief among them Benjamin Wallfisch’s score. It’s overly aggressive, and, frankly, unneeded. I wish filmmakers understood that not every movie needs music—the insistently howling wind is all the soundtrack The Vanishing needs. And then there are the accents, which are aggressively Scottish. I co-host a podcast with a Scottish person and never have this problem, but for The Vanishing I had to turn on subtitles. (Oh didn’t you know? Kayleigh Donaldson and I are podcasting.) So fair warning, the score will annoy you and you might need subtitles.
But the acting is really good—yes, even Gerard Butler—and while it’s thinking too hard about what happened to the Flannan Isles keepers (they were most likely swept away while trying to secure supplies during a storm), The Vanishing is an effectively moody drama-thriller hybrid. It’s nice to look at, it’s clever how the interiors of the lighthouse are shot in a cramped style by hand-held cameras that move enough to give you the impression of being on a boat, and while I sort of don’t like attempts to solve the unsolvable, The Vanishing works well enough as a psychological piece to survive the attempt, even if the lighthouse keepers don’t.
Attached - Gerard Butler out in LA last month.