The Vanishing Is a Phenomenally Well-Made Thriller

Originally and less vaguely entitled Keepers, the thriller The Vanishing dramatizes the story of three lighthouse keepers (one young, one middle-aged, one getting up there) who resided for a time on a rocky, storm-swept island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides before vanishing four days before Christmas, 1900. We know in advance that the story won’t end happily, so the question is: Will we learn anything about human nature in extremis en route to the foreordained catastrophe?

The short answer is no, but the movie is phenomenally well made and the three actors who fall apart on our watch suffer magnificently. Foremost among them is Peter Mullan, whose face can be studied like a chart: How did that line get there? What habitual expression does that line denote? There’s a map of the human psyche there for them that know to read it. Mullan’s character, Thomas Marshall, has lost what family he had under miserable circumstances and seems surrounded by an aureole of emptiness. It soon infects James Ducat (Gerard Butler), who tearfully left behind a wife and kids but seems bereft beyond reason even before all the bad stuff goes down. The third member of the party, young Donald McArthur (Connor Swindells), is coming apart from the start, plainly out of his histrionic depth. When a storm hits, Mullan’s Marshall greets it in high dudgeon, shouting at the heavens like Lear on the heath. It seems fitting when the three awake to find the cliffside littered with dead gulls: The birds must have swooped in to hear Mullan’s declamations and smashed into the lighthouse.