“The Vanishing” initially intrigued me but eventually bored me a lot. Loosely inspired by a mysterious case of disappearance which really happened in 1900, the movie attempts a dark thriller drama of greed, guilt, and madness, but it fails to engage us as often marred by its paper-thin narrative and bland characterization, and it is really depressing to see how it solemnly trudges toward its eventual ending without much dramatic impact on the whole.
The movie opens with the introduction of its three main characters: James (Gerard Butler), Thomas (Peter Mullan), and Donald (Connor Swindells). They are soon going to leave together for a remote lighthouse isle far from the coast of Scotland, and we get to know a bit about each other before their departure at a local port. While James is a plain family man as shown from a brief moment of his, Thomas is a reticent old man who has worked as a lighthouse keeper for more than 20 years, and Donald is a young rookie who goes to the isle for the first time.
Once they arrive in the isle, these three lighthouse keepers begin the first day of their 6-week work period on the isle. We see them checking and then fixing the lighthouse a bit, and they later spend a cozy evening time together at a nearby house where they are staying. Because of his inexperience, Donald usually watches how his two colleagues work, but he is ready to learn more from them, and it looks like he will have a nice productive time with them on the isle.
However, after one very stormy night, they come across something unexpected on the very next day. They find a lifeboat drifted to the rocky shore of the isle, and there are also the body of a mysterious man and a big chest which probably belongs to that man. When one of them climbs down alone to the shore for checking the lifeboat as well as the body and the chest, nothing seems to be going wrong, but, not so surprisingly, the situation gets gone quite wrong in a way I will not describe here in details.
Anyway, they manage to obtain the chest and then take it to their house. While Donald and James are curious about what is inside the chest, Thomas is against opening the chest because they are already in a serious circumstance they have to deal with in one way or another. Of course, due to his growing curiosity, Thomas opens the chest while others are sleeping at night, and, once discovering what is inside the chest, he realizes that their situation is much more serious than it seemed at first.
So far, I have been very careful about describing the story for avoiding any possible spoilers, but now I have to advise you not to read my review further if you are still interested in watching the film. After they also come to learn of the certain content of the chest, Donald and James consider covering up their incident, and Thomas eventually agrees to join them as emphasizing that they must stick to his plan for getting away with what they are going to do. Because there is no one in the isle except them, it looks like the plan will work out well in the end, and all they will have to do is keeping quiet about their incident for several months at least.
Now you may be reminded of many other similar thriller films such as “Shallow Grave” (1995) and “A Simple Plan” (1998), and the screenplay by Celyn Jones and Joe Bone does not go that far from whatever you can expect from its three main characters’ situation. As Thomas worried from the very beginning, it turns out that there are some people looking for not only that mysterious dead man but also the chest, and we accordingly get a quiet but nervous moment when Thomas and his two colleagues desperately try to handle their imminent trouble. The situation becomes gloomier as they later struggle with each own fear or guilt, and we are not so surprised when one of them comes to descend into remorseful lunacy.
We are supposed to be more involved in its three main characters’ difficult circumstance around that narrative point, but, unfortunately, the movie does not generate enough narrative momentum to hold our attention, and we only come to observe them from the distance without caring much about them. They remain more or less than plot elements to be manipulated in one direction or another, and we can only see the main performers of the movie trying very hard to make their respective characters look convincing. Gerard Butler, who also participated in the production of the film, surely shows here in this film that he still can do a lot more than what he did in those forgettable blockbuster action films during recent years, but his performance is often hampered by some inconsistency in his character’s deeds and behaviors, and the same thing can be said about Connor Swindells, who is unfortunately stuck with a more colorless role. In case of Peter Mullan, a wonderful Scottish performer I have admired since I watched his solid supporting performance in “Young Adam” (2003), he deftly handles his broad character as letting us sense a long human history behind his character’s crusty façade, and he is definitely one of a few good things in the film.
Overall, “The Vanishing”, directed by Danish filmmaker Kristoffer Nyholm (This is his first feature film, by the way), is a grim, lifeless genre exercise you do not have to watch at all, and I am willing to recommend several better films such as “A Simple Plan”. Believe me, you will have a far better time if you watch that under-appreciated gem instead of this unimpressive flop, and you may thank me for recommending it.