Real-world mysteries often provide creative license for storytellers to fill in the gaps and interpret such stories in their own way; this is exactly what The Vanishing does – a satisfyingly dour, primal thriller starring Scottish heavyweights Gerard Butler and Peter Mullan – as it re-imagines just what happened to three lighthouse keepers that vanished from the Flannan Isles in 1900.
Writers Celyn Jones and Joe Bone articulate their account of the story with grit; this is a film that is abrasive, rough around the edges and grounded – it lacks the Hollywood sheen that can usually dilute these kinds of stories. We spend a lot of time following our three keepers – James (Butler), Thomas (Mullan) and Donald (Connor Swindells) – in the mundanity of their days, as they bicker and drink and work on the remote island. It’s not always glamorous or outright exciting but it feels like we’re there, alongside these men, trudging along as they do. Jones and Bone clearly understand when to reveal their hand; their writing is smart and patient and the film works all the better for it. They pepper their mystery slowly throughout, drumming up a lot of intrigue from the second these men arrive into isolation from the world; as soon as things start to go awry, the tension suddenly feels volatile – as if the characters could all descend into madness at any second – which permeates the narrative with a constant sense of dread and unpredictability. This urgency galvanises our characters and our story into action and it makes for such visceral viewing. Violence is sparingly used but when it does strike, it’s unflinching and brutal – efficient yet indelible.
Director Kristoffer Nyholm’s direction is superb; having come from a TV background of similarly intense projects (the likes of Taboo and The Killing), he knows this tone well. He creates a world that is weary and real – the isolation of the island itself adds to the very claustrophobic nature of the proceedings, which Nyholm superbly tools to build on the anxiety. His orchestration of tension is terrific; it’s patient, slowly coiling around the audience to create a palpable and impending sense of dread. The cinematography utilises darker, greyer hues and couples with the camerawork to create a very cold, hostile aesthetic that weaves seamlessly with Nyholm’s storytelling. This is a film that takes the minutiae of the plethora of components at its disposal – from writing to direction, lighting and even framing – to really build upon the grander picture superbly; every component works in its own way to add to the narrative and the tension. The screenplay certainly takes a little bit of time to kick into gear and find its footing but, once it does, The Vanishing is a slow-burning thrill ride that soaks its audience in its enthralling atmosphere and craftsmanship.
But, as superb and white-knuckle as it all is though, the core of this film is the relationship between our trinity of characters and Butler, Mullan and Swindells are a powerhouse trio together; Butler, especially, has cultivated a career out of communicating with his fists – an “action man”, if you will – so it’s refreshing to see him take on a multi-faceted, nuanced character that really shows this underappreciated leading man’s true acting chops as he gives a riveting, magnetic performance that feels like the crowning glory of his acting career to date. Mullan and Swindells are equally as compelling; the former is terrific as a dishevelled man with a dark past and the latter holds his own against two iconic Scottish actors brilliantly – matching his peers blow-for-blow in the explosive dialogue sequences. But it’s the veritable chemistry and electric dynamic between them that is where the film shines; the scenes involving the trio mulling and dissecting their problems are easily the best. These seemingly disparate men find a touching respite within each other and their lighthouse keeping and it really keeps their friendship genuine and almost tactile, not to mention it grounds the film with that much needed heart offering some levity from all the intensity. Throw in director Nyholm’s kinetic direction, Jones and Bone’s sharp script and a very authentic approach from all and The Vanishing is one of the year’s best – a deliciously dark, utterly enthralling slow-burn thriller that is equally as white-knuckle and exciting as it is nuanced and brooding.
The Vanishing review by Awais Irfan at the 2019 Glasgow Film Festival.