In December 1900, authorities investigating a darkened lighthouse off Scotland’s west coast found all three men employed there missing, with no sign of struggle or any other explanation emerging. Their disappearance became known as “The Flannan Isle Mystery,” inspiring a famous poem by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson—as well as more recent artistic interpretations in various media, from a novel to an opera to a video game. However, “The Vanishing” seems to be the first film inspired by these events. One hopes it isn’t the last, because it’s an intriguing premise, one that Kristoffer Nyholm’s feature ultimately doesn’t make much of.
Falling between the stools of thriller and drama, this speculative tale grows steadily less satisfying, despite a handsome look and a strong cast headed by Gerard Butler and Peter Mullan. It launches Jan. 4 on 10 U.S. screens simultaneous with on-demand release; several other territories will shortly follow.
We meet the protagonists on the day they gather to be ferried over to the isle in question — one of the Flannans, aka Seven Hunters, a group of small islands with no permanent residents today — in order to assume coming months’ lighthouse-keeping duties from the prior crew. They’re comprised of old hand Thomas (Mullan), a taciturn type made more so since his wife’s recent death; big, amiable James (Butler), temporarily leaving his wife and children behind on the mainland; and Donald (newcomer Connor Swindells), a greenhorn youth who’s high-spirited but also inclined to sulk, having been kicked around as an orphan.
They settle in for an isolated long haul, one that promises to be harmonious enough despite Thomas’ occasional nocturnal roaming under the influence of whiskey and grief. Then after a storm, Donald makes a discovery: An apparently dead man and his rowboat, beached in a crevasse. The man turns out to be not-so-dead after all, though after a tussle he duly is so. The reason for his violence is revealed when they open the locked chest he’d hauled: It contains two solid-gold bars.
Unfortunately, that stolen treasure also brings two more men (Soren Malling, Olafur Darri Olafsson), who soon turn up looking for their “missing crewmate.” They do not buy the lighthousemen’s hastily contrived cover story, provoking further confrontation.
The actual historic mystery’s near-blank slate means “The Vanishing” could have gone in any explanatory direction. Its decision to pursue a “Simple Plan”-type narrative — in which escalating greed and paranoia among those who find pilfered loot proves deadlier than any threat from its prior owners — might’ve worked with a sufficiently clever, surprising screenplay. But scenarists Celyn Jones and Joe Bone seem uncertain whether to create a crime melodrama or a psychological thriller, ending up with something that is not quite either. Nor does Danish director Kristoffer Nyholm, making his theatrical feature debut after numerous well-received TV cliffhangers (“Taboo,” The Enfield Haunting,” “The Killing”), rachet up the tension as needed.
“The Vanishing” holds strong promise in its early going, when we’ve no idea what will happen (beyond that three men will “disappear” into thin air). The stark, craggily exposed beauty of the locations conjures a mood of primal peril in Jorgen Johansson’s widescreen cinematography, and other tech/design contributions are atmospheric. But despite some fairly bloody scenes, there’s not much excitement or urgency communicated as events escalate. More disappointingly still, the depth of character conflict that would effectively shift the film’s core from pulp suspense to tragedy never quite arrives.
It’s hardly the actors’ fault: The reliable Mullan is well-cast, fellow native Scot Butler effectively breaks out of his recent popcorn-action rut with an earthier turn, and newcomer Swindells shows potential in a limited part. But their individual roles and eventually dangerous interpersonal dynamic feel underwritten. (Admittedly, some of the heavily brogue’d dialogue is hard for American ears to suss out.) As a consequence some key incidents emerge more murky than impactful, including a fadeout that doesn’t even seem to fulfill a basic factual requirement of the Flannan Isle “mystery.”
Attractively rugged as it is in look and feel, “The Vanishing” fails on an elemental level: After seeing it, you’ll probably think you could still imagine a more memorable explanation for that lingering mystery than what these filmmakers came up with.