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The Vanishing

Released 2019. Director: Kristoffer Nyholm

NEVER TAKE ANYTHING THAT DOESN'T BELONG TO YOU. WE HAVE SEEN this many times in the movies, when people appropriating ill-begotten wealth always end up in a bad way. The ending is almost certain a foregone conclusion.

This latest variation on the same theme is based on the mystery of the Flannan Isles, off the coast of Scotland, where three lighthouse keepers disappeared in December 1900. No one knows what happened. The men simply vanished from the island.

This speculative script does not involve anything supernatural. Everything that transpires is the consequence of human actions. A chain of events that sweeps the men past a point of no return.

The lighthouse keepers – Thomas, James and Donald – played by Peter Mullan, Gerard Butler and Connor Swindells respectively, arrive on the island for their six-week stint. They quickly set into their routine, doing maintenance, lighting the lamp, and taking turns with the cooking and chores. In a small compound on an isolated island, each man has his place, whether he’s a seasoned captain or a young novice.

Once the introduction is done, the movie dives straight into the start of the mystery. Almost by pure chance, the men catches sight of someone washed up onshore under a cliff. Donald climbs down to find the stranger dead, with a heavy wooden trunk. While James and Thomas pull the trunk up by rope, the dead man, who turns out not to be dead, attacks Donald and out of self-defense, Donald kills him.

Before they’re able to fully process the aftermath of killing another person, they find gold bars in the trunk. James and Donald are euphoric, believing this will change their lives forever, as Thomas remains cautious.

Then a boat arrives with a couple of sinister looking fellows asking for their mate who fled with their loot. The keepers lie; and they know the intruders know they’re lying. Before the night is over, violence will take over and the intruders will be dead.

Like a storm that comes out of nowhere, everything changes in an instant. The keepers make quick plans, split-second decisions, which only land them in the deep end and for more than one, a swift descent into mental meltdown.

In a confined environment with nowhere to run, the next few hours become emotionally charged and tense. Director Kristoffer Nyholm skilfully takes the movie on a sharp turn in mood and atmosphere, all the way to its unsparing and bleak conclusion. By this time, he has also developed character sympathy as we learn about how Thomas’s wife and babies died many years ago, James’s young family waiting for his return, and Donald’s unrequited first love.

All three actors give commendable performances. Peter Mullan is solemn and grounded as the one with the most experience, but his sense of caution doesn’t preclude him from making some fateful decisions that might arguably cast him as a villain. Gerard Butler shows dramatic chops with a strong presence and a contrast between his brute strength and vulnerability. Connor Swindell’s character shows the most change by the time he meets his end. A different man from the one who landed on the island not so long ago.

Although the mystery of the Flannan Isles happened over a hundred years ago, this movie shows it’s lost none of the fascination. Naturally, with the disappearance of the men the story assumes the worst. Nobody comes home, and not all will survive. In the hands of Kristoffer Nyholm and writers Joe Bone and Celyn Jones, The Vanishing is a tale of fundamental human drives and bad decisions. Well made and moody, it deserves to have a wider audience.


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