'The Vanishing': Film Review

Fine performances and eerie atmospherics enhance this slow burner.

Peter Mullan and Gerard Butler play Scottish lighthouse keepers in Kristoffer Nyholm's 1930s-set thriller.

A perpetually mist-covered Scottish island provides the evocative setting for Kristoffer Nyholm's claustrophobic period thriller. Boasting excellent performances by screen veterans Peter Mullan and Gerard Butler, the latter delivering one of his best turns in years, The Vanishing feels familiar in most ways, including its title (the same as George Sluizer's classic Dutch thriller and its mediocre American remake). Nonetheless, the film proves highly effective with its slowly ratcheted up tension and eerie atmospherics.

Inspired by the real-life "Flannan Isle Mystery" in which three Scottish lighthouse keepers disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 1900, this imagining of what might have happened is set in 1938. It delivers a Treasure of the Sierra Madre-like scenario involving the discovery of a gold treasure that inevitably results in violent repercussions.

The central characters are crusty widower Thomas (Mullan), affable family man James (Butler) and young apprentice Donald (Conner Swindell), the latter required to learn about such things as the dangers of the mercury used to lubricate the lighthouse machinery. As the story begins, the men have just arrived on the remote island for a six-week shift that's expected to be routine. Until, of course, it isn't.

The ominous tone is established early on, via such foreboding scenes as when the men have to clean up the bodies of numerous dead seagulls after a ferocious storm. But it's when a man washes up on the shore, accompanied by a wooden trunk, that things truly take a turn for the worse. Donald is given the task of descending a steep cliff to see if the victim is still alive, and is nearly drowned by the suddenly violent stranger for his troubles. After killing the man in self-defense, the trio discovers that the trunk is filled with gold bars. Not long afterward, two of the dead man's shipmates arrive and begin making inquiries. Although clearly suspicious of Thomas' explanation that omits any mention of the trunk, they make their exit. It isn't hard to guess that they'll return, with fatal consequences.

It's the details that matter in this richly textured, slow-paced thriller. The screenplay by Joe Bone and Celyn Jones features many quietly effective moments, such as when Thomas talks about the loss of his wife and Donald asks him if the marriage produced any children.

"Briefly," Thomas replies, letting the enigmatic answer hang in the air.

Director Nyholm, an old hand with this sort of material (his credits include numerous episodes of the Danish television series The Killing), maintains a strong hold as the storyline becomes more melodramatic and violent. The film's effectiveness is greatly enhanced by Jorgen Johansson's superb widescreen cinematography of the picture-perfect Scottish location that serves as a veritable character itself.

Mullan, superb as always, makes his characterization all the more effective with his disciplined underplaying, Swindell makes a strong feature debut as the trainee who gets more than he bargained for, and Olafur Darri Olafsson, Gary Lewis and Soren Malling make vivid impressions in their brief screen time as the menacing interlopers. But it's Butler who's the revelation. Looking suitably ruddy and puffy, he delivers a strong reminder that there's a real actor lurking within the star of so many forgettable action movie vehicles.

Production companies: Mad as Birds, G-BASE, Head Gear Films, Kodiak Pictures, Metrol Technology
Distributor: Saban Films
Cast: Gerard Butler, Peter Mullan, Olafur, Darri Olafsson, Gary Lewis, Soren Malling
Director: Kristoffer Nyholm
Screenwriters: Joe Bone, Celyn Jones
Producers: Andy Evans, Sean Marley, Ade Shannon, Jason Seagraves, Maurice Fadida, Gerard Butler, Alan Seigel
Executive producers: Celyn Jones, Kristoffer Nyholm, Mickey Gooch Jr. D.G. Guyer, James Lesjek, Danielle Robinson, Brian Oliver, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross
Director of photography: Jorgen Pohansson
Production designer: Jacqueline Abrahams
Editor: Morten Hojbberg
Composer: Benjamin Wallfisch
Costume designer: Pam Downe
Casting: Reg Poerscout-Edgerton

Rated R, 106 minutes