*. Lighthouses are symbols that have long had a grip on the imagination. What they’re symbols of is often sketchy though. They remain mysterious, from Edgar Allan Poe’s final, unfinished (or was it?) story “The Light-House,” to Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, to one’s obelisk-like significance at the end of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (also there in the film version).
*. In 1900 this mysteriousness took a real form when the three keepers of the Flannan Isles Lighthouse disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to them, though it’s assumed they were swept out to sea by a rogue wave. Their disappearance would, in turn, provide the germ of this film, which is set on the Flannan Isles. I’d thought it had also inspired Max and Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse but apparently that one was based on an unfinished Poe story. Or at least that’s what they say. I didn’t see much of a connection to Poe.
*. But back to The Vanishing. Perhaps the main thing to say here is that it’s not as weird a movie as The Lighthouse. In fact, its naturalism is almost a gimmick. Three men arrive at a lonely lighthouse station: the old man (Thomas/Peter Mullan), the burly family man in his prime (James/Gerard Butler), and the kid (Donald/Connor Swindell). A nearly-dead man with a chest full of gold washes ashore. They’re rich! But then two other guys, Locke (Søren Malling) and Boor (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) show up. They were shipmates of the (now fully) dead guy and they were just sort of wondering if the lighthouse keepers might have seen anything suspicious in the last couple of days. Like a guy with a chest of gold.
*. So the set-up has us expecting the usual sort of moral fable you get with all such tales of discovered gold, from Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. There are, of course, eruptions of violence, but the real theme the movie wants to address is guilt. These aren’t zipless kills. The men have to assure themselves that all this isn’t their fault. Even Gerald Butler breaks down! How many people have we seen Mike Banning kill without batting an eye? Now there’s some serious casting against type.
*. It’s a new take on what I thought going in was going to be more of a straight action-thriller. I’m not sure that’s enough though to recommend it. And I can’t help thinking a big part of the problem is Butler being miscast. Also, for a character study I didn’t think it had enough traction. I just didn’t feel I knew these people well enough, or cared enough about them and their problems. Tom had a family, and they’re gone. So what? James has a family back on the mainland we don’t know anything about. It’s hard to feel any of these connections.
*. Instead, the two visitors provide all the spark. Malling is great as the sinister Locke, eyes just dripping with malice and menace. And I love it when Boor rages at James, calling him a pig. Because he’s right! The money isn’t his! So where’s the damn gold? And what happened to the other guy they took it from? From Boor’s point of view the lighthouse keepers are pigs, and probably murderous pigs at that.
*. A good looking movie, as you should expect given that lighthouses are among the most photogenic locations imaginable. But the direction by Kristoffer Nyholm never dials up any suspense and the whole thing just felt like a bit of dead weight. If they were going to tell such a story and make it about the men then somehow it had to find a way for us to care more about them, and I feel almost a little ashamed to say that I didn’t. Maybe it’s just a case of falling between two stools — action film and existential drama — with neither really taking hold. It’s a tough trick they tried to pull off and I want to give them credit for trying but that’s the best I can do.