J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, January 04, 2019

The Vanishing: Scotland’s Lighthouse Mystery


Lighthouse keeping is a quiet, lonely business, but it is fraught with occupational risks. There is a voluminous history of mysterious and tragic events occurring in isolated lighthouses that have suddenly inspired a clump of films. Following Chris Crow’s The Lighthouse, based on the very real “Small’s Lighthouse Incident,” the mysterious disappearance of the Flannan Isles light-keepers gets a fictionalized explanation in Kristoffer Nyholm’s The Vanishing (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

James Ducat is the garrulous family man. Thomas Marshall is the bitter, guilt-wracked widower. Donald McArthur is the obnoxious apprentice. The three light-keepers ought to be able to survive six weeks on the Isle together, but all bets are off when an unknown sailor and a mystery chest wash up on at the bottom of a coastal ravine. Naturally, McArthur is sent down to investigate, but he is forced to kill in self-defense when the unnamed man turns out to be healthier (and meaner) than he looked.

Even though Marshall (rightly) fears the chest could be a proverbial Pandora’s box, they soon discover its contents: a sturdy pair of work boots and several bars of gold bullion. Obviously, it would be a terrible shame if those boots went to waste. As for the gold, the three co-workers decide to split it, like the bag of cash in A Simple Plan. They agree to wait a full year before cashing in, to avoid suspicion, but they are caught flat-footed when the dead man’s fellow crew members come looking for him and his “cargo.”

As a thriller, The Vanishing is nothing extraordinary, but it has its merits, starting with Gerard Butler, who does his best work since Ralph Fiennes’ Coriolanus as Ducat. He starts out as quite the hail-fellow chap, but becomes increasingly unhinged as their situation becomes dire. Peter Mullan is one of the best thesps in the business, but the salty old Marshall is so solidly in his wheelhouse, he hardly breaks an acting sweat. Connor Swindells is fittingly annoying as McArthur, while Danish character actor Søren Malling is all kinds of leathery and sinister looking as the suspicious skipper.

Nyholm’s workmanlike helming captures the claustrophobia of the lighthouse, but he allows the tension to flag from time to time. However, cinematographer Jørgen Johansson fully capitalizes on the lonely, picturesque vistas of the Outer Hebrides locale.

The one-two punch of The Vanishing and Crow’s Lighthouse should be sufficient to dissuade most recent grads from considering lighthouse keeping as a career. Maybe someone will make a film about the notorious Bustard Head lighthouse in Australia, to really drive home the point. Of course, it is easy to see the appeal of lighthouse movies to filmmakers: small cast, one set, and the evocative image of a windswept tower rising above the rocks. The Vanishing has all that, plus Butler as you have rarely seen him before. It is a completely respectable film, but viewers can safely wait until it hits subscription-based streaming services. For eager lighthouse buffs, it opens today (1/4) in New York, at the Cinema Village and releases day-and-date on iTunes.

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