Gerard Butler, bless his heart. He’s not exactly a man whose name inspires cinematic confidence these days. One does not go to the majority of his movies for quality, if you catch my drift. However, you typically know what you’re going to get with a Gerry Butler joint: Guns, explosions, an every-man protagonist who is still the Most Important Person who has ever lived, and a narrative of self-aware schlock with its tongue firmly in-between its cheek. So, what happens when, against all expectations and the sheer forces of nature, Butler makes a movie that’s actually really good?
Yes, I am aware that this sounds condescending as all hell, but I’ve watched a lot of this guy’s movies and I’ve found immense comfort in his perpetual C- status. When I want a Geostorm, I know I can rely on him to provide it. But The Vanishing is a very different beast. Unlike many of his other movies, this one wants you to take it seriously. Inspired by the true story of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse disappearances from 1900, Danish director Kristoffer Nyholm’s thriller follows three men on their six-week shift tending to the lighthouse on the remote islands off the West Coast of the Hebrides. The trio, comprised of Gerard Butler, Peter Mullan and Connor Swindells, must survive tough weather, the panic of isolation and the inescapable company of one another.
The Flannan Isles disappearances is one of those old Scottish ghost stories you hear a lot if you’re super into unsolved mysteries and folklore. The lighthouse keepers were probably swept out to sea by an unexpected wave, but that hasn’t stopped a solid century of ghost story re-writings. Thankfully, The Vanishing chooses not to go for the obvious supernatural slant and decides to go more for a Treasure of the Sierra Madre-inspired tale of paranoia, greed and boredom in the savage wild. The three men sent on their latest shift to the island - the gruff old-hand (Peter Mullan), the jovial family man (Gerard Butler), and the young first-timer (Connor Swindells from Sex Education, who isn’t Scottish but does a surprisingly solid accent) - are bound by gentle camaraderie but mostly the monotony of the job. All they have is one another but it takes next to nothing for that shaky circle of trust to crumble, so the moment the inciting incident that leads to the vanishing occurs, the sense of dread is off the charts.
The Vanishing takes its time in establishing the central three and what differentiates them from one another. It’s also happy to languish in their comforting monotony, as they catch crabs, sing shanties and clear up dead seagulls. For a little while, the sharp winds and grey skies don’t feel so ominous, but that doesn’t last long. Nyholm, who worked a lot on the crime drama The Killing, captures that strange exhaustion of Scottish weather: You get used to the damp and the wind but you always feel a little bit trapped by it, and once the winds pick up, the claustrophobia sets in.
It’s not hard to see why Butler, who is also a producer on this film, would be drawn to his role. He gets the most thorough and dramatic narrative of the trio, morphing from a happy-go-lucky man with small dreams who keeps the lighthouse team bound together to a paranoid mess haunted by the depths he’s sunk to. Butler is stronger in those earlier scenes, charming and warm and understandable as the safe port in a storm. The meatier material may be in the second half, but he relies a tad too heavily on various levels of gruff to get his point across. In fairness, he does gruff well (and he is rocking the gruff old Scottish man beard in this one), but the weaknesses are evident. The true star here is the legendary Peter Mullan, an actor of such depth and emotion that he can slide between murderous fury and crushing grief and make it look easy. You don’t even care that this is a character he’s played so many times before because he’s giving it his everything. Usually, with such actors, I’d ask that they appear in everything, but Mullan already does.
There aren’t a massive amount of surprises in The Vanishing, but the shocks do land with a punch, and it’s a thriller that actually takes its time with the violence. Hurting people can be a long and difficult process, and the emotions felt afterwards all the more agonizing as a result. When people are injured or killed here, it’s genuinely tough to watch, utterly devoid of the glamour typically seen in such otherwise conventional thrillers. People get punched and they wear the bruises and scars for the rest of the film. After a while, it seems like nobody has any clothing free of blood stains.
It’s a shame the film feels the need to become more of a conventional Hollywood thriller by its climax because its cozy and incredibly Scottish mood up unto that point is what makes it such an enjoyable potboiler. And believe me, this movie is SUPER Scottish. The Argyll knit jumpers! The casual use of ‘bawbag’ as a term of endearment! The cups of tea and whisky that follow every traumatic moment! The mandated Gary Lewis cameo! And that really is Scotland it’s shot in, which makes a refreshing change. Alas, the tradition of movie tropes can’t be held off for long.
The Vanishing doesn’t reinvent the wheel but for a satisfying thriller that sets itself such specific limitations and remains creative within those barriers, it makes for a fun Friday night watch. And if you’re American, you can stream it on Amazon now! But be warned: Gerard Butler does sing.
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