Using Scottish folklore as a speculative framing device for historical fanfiction, The Vanishing (formerly Keepers) tells the viewer right at the top that this is extremely loosely based on the story of the Flannan Isle Mystery, in which three lighthouse keepers disappeared at the turn of the century. After arriving on their remote isle for a six-week stint, those men – Donald (Connor Swindells), the naive youth killing time before his real life begins; James (Gerard Butler), the down-on-his-luck family man who deeply needs the cash; and Thomas (Peter Mullan), the seasoned veteran who becomes the group’s stern leader – soon make a fateful discovery, as a body washes ashore with a box filled with gold bars in tow. It isn’t long before sailors come asking questions.
The kind of men who would opt for this life of isolation and an abundance of time carry with them insurmountable secrets and unresolved emotional baggage, and The Vanishing is at its most astute when it fosters an environment for those skeletons to perceptively make their way to the surface. Director Kristoffer Nyholm (best known for his work on the Danish version of The Killing) understands how to both create and nurture tension, gripping his audience even after opening his film with a title card detailing the men’s fate. Truly fascinated with the journey over the destination, the film’s draw rests on observing the men gradually crumbling under the cumbersome weight of their own sins, wasting no time turning on themselves and one another: “Many a keeper’s lost their mind to quicksilver.”
For many, it will be almost detrimentally bizarre to see Gerard Butler expected to anchor an unassuming, character-driven indie mood piece. (Butler also believed in the project enough to serve as producer.) But possibly the biggest surprise of all is that he’s actually up to the task. Displaying an emotional depth and a subtle restraint not even hinted at by his often loud and obnoxious career, Butler gives perhaps his most emotive performance to date (a shameful appreciation for P.S. I Love You notwithstanding). And he isn’t alone. For much of its runtime, The Vanishing is a conversation piece, and all three of its leads (Peter Mullan in particular) serve as irreplaceable cogs in its affecting machinery, each distinct in both their fears and motivations.
The Vanishing is far from a perfect film. It’s pacing is often strangely carried out and its paper-thin premise can only be taken so far. However, it delivers everything it promises and more. Perhaps some of its aptitude stems solely from the benefit of low expectations – a January V.O.D. release is rarely this effective a thriller or trauma showcase – but Nyholm has crafted an eerie mystery that goes down easy and stays with you after the credits roll. What truly elevates The Vanishing above many of its ilk is its heartfelt desire to chart the morality of both its gruesome violence and destructive hypermasculinity. There’s a level of care here that reaches significantly further than cheap thrills and bloodshed.