In 1900, three lighthouse keepers disappeared with no trace during their rotation on Eilean Mòr, twenty miles off the west coast of Scotland. Inspired by this unsolved Flannan Isles mystery, The Vanishing is the first feature film of Danish director Kristoffer Nyholm, who has previously directed acclaimed cliffhanger series such as The Killing and Taboo. Shining a light on the tragic enigma for the first time on the big screen, the movie is an enjoyable (but brutal) action-packed thriller-drama conveyed with chilly efficiency and great photography.
From the start, the eerie atmosphere of isolation and raging natural elements builds up tension on the remote rocky cliff-edged island. Music and close shots set a claustrophobic climate as the keepers settle into their daily routine and tasks in the lighthouse. Far from society, they must rely on solidarity and integrity to survive. But these conditions are soon revealed to be fragile, as the three generations of characters appear to struggle in their attempt at camaraderie, with individual past histories and distinct motivations to be here coming into conflict. As a consequence, suspicion develops: the young Donald (Connor Swindell) is seen as a bad omen by James (Gerard Butler), while veteran Thomas (Peter Mullan) is spied at night, drunk, wandering outside, in grief about the loss of his wife and children.
When Donald spots a wrecked rowboat with a dead body down a cliff, things become poisonous for the keepers, with consequent effects on their experiences and relationships. The discovery of a wooden box near the body unsettles them even more, triggering increasingly dramatic actions like a curse sealing their fate. Suspicion, silence and isolation erode good judgement and their decisions send them into a spiral of greed, paranoia and mental instability. As a mysterious boat heads toward the island, the three men make a definite choice that will push their moral boundaries. What follows is a fight for survival leading to agony and destruction.
The film seems to be a study of inner turmoil through grief and shock as death is introduced, pulling James into a psychological abyss, with Thomas forced to come out of his own widower sorrow and deal with the deteriorating behaviour of his co-workers. Although the performances are very good, they do not avoid Manichaeism and keep the film firmly in the action-thriller genre. Unfortunately, it lacks sufficient depth to grip the darkness of human weaknesses and trigger the poignancy of the keepers’ situation. The finale is rather disappointing as it does not play with the enduring mystery of the real facts, but instead gives an explicit solution to the men’s disappearance from the island. What’s more, the director’s version of what might have happened is not ground-breaking; had he injected a more mysterious feel, it could perhaps have held greater impact.