The Vanishing (2018)

*. 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.

30 thoughts on “The Vanishing (2018)

      1. film-authority.com

        I was one of the keepers. Yes, we all vanished into the mist, but some believe that the cormorant or shags mentioned are our spirits.

        You do know what a cormorant or shag is, don’t you?

      2. Alex Good Post author

        The poem you reference is anachronistic to this discussion, being written after the events in question. You know what an anachronism is, right? It’s not a device, normally made of metal, used to secure a vessel to the bed of a body of water to prevent the craft from drifting due to wind or current.

      3. film-authority.com

        Most poems are written after the event in question. This poem is taught in primary school to every kid in the UK, and then again in secondary school. So that’s why so many films and stories (Fang Rock) have been inspired by it. If you did two minutes research you’d know that, it’s totally chronistic to a film made in 2018.

      4. Alex Good Post author

        So you’re saying this movie wasn’t based on the actual disappearance of the keepers but by a poem that was later written about it? A poem which nobody outside of the UK has heard of that was also the inspiration for The Lighthouse? Interesting. How long were you on the island with the cormorants again?

      5. film-authority.com

        Sigh. No-one would know about the vanishing of the keepers if it wasn’t immortalised by a one of the most widely read poems in literary history. The fact that you don’t know it only shows the lack of insight and knowledge that you bring to everything you write.

        Thanks for the positive comments earlier, very flattering!

  1. Bookstooge

    I am not a fan of movies that try to straddle two different genres. There are times it works because the director really is that good, but most of the time the movie gets it right in the jewels because of the straddling.

    This sounds like a jewels one 😦

    Reply
  2. Over-The-Shoulder

    Like Peter Mullan, and as a premise, it sounds quite good. Shame it just didn’t quite ignite. I’m guessing the three men disappear by the end – how is it explained here? Or is the title just really misleading?

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      Well, spoiler alert! Butler goes crazy and kills the young guy. Then he goes out on a boat with Mullan and drowns (sort of assisted suicide). We don’t know what happens to Mullan. There’s nothing supernatural going on. The movie goes in a totally different direction from The Lighthouse.

      Reply
      1. Alex Good Post author

        They do stick to the basics of the story so that an explanation is offered for how the three keepers disappeared/vanished, and why nobody knows what happened to them (presumably Mullan just sails away and starts a new life, staying mum about what happened to the others). So they get a pass on that one from me. I’ve seen a lot of worse titles.

        Does the title Apocalypse Now really mean anything? It’s briefly seen as graffiti on a wall at Kurtz’s camp. Aside from that it’s just kind of evocative.

        Chinatown has nothing to do with Chinatown. Fargo isn’t set in Fargo. Lots of great movies have misleading titles!

      2. Over-The-Shoulder

        Yeah, but Apocalypse Now perfectly sums up the film to a tee. Apocalypse. Now. Chinatown I have a case for – he used to work in Chinatown, and the ending is set there. Fargo is pretty unexplainable apart from the very first scene.

        Brazil is probably the most misleading title of all time, though. Snakes on a Plane was nice and literal.

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