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Monday, January 7, 2019

Review: The Vanishing

Director: Kristoffer Nyholm
Screenplay: Joe Bone, Celyn Jones
Year: 2019

In the year 1900, the disappearance of three men was reported, whom oversaw maintaining the Flannan Isle lighthouse, west of Scotland. After inspecting the island, no evidence for the reason behind the disappearance of these three men was found. Until today, there are just speculations of what might have happened in this place. The movie “The Vanishing” is one of these speculations about the fatal destiny of the keepers of the Flannan Isle lighthouse.

The first question to struck me after hearing about this movie was how much horror elements would it really have. The true story of the disappearances is not known, and the range of possibilities is broad. Curiosity and ambiguity are its best calling cards. In the end, the story moves in the drama field, in which it is explored how desolation, feeling of guilt and paranoia play with the mental health of these people. This goes along with an important element, which, even though it is presented explicitly, nowhere in the movie an explicit link is made with the chain of events, which is mercury poisoning. Later come some violent events, when after a storm, an apparently dead man and a boat reduced to smithereens is found at the edge of the island. After inspecting the site, they found out that the man was not dead and that he was violent, which leads one of the keepers to kill him in self-defense. Then they found out that the reason he was so violent is that he had a chest with gold he was trying to protect. The death of this man is crucial, as it unleashes the paranoia and feeling of guilt because of his death and a chain of tense and violent events.

Even though mercury poisoning is not a common issue anymore, it was decades ago, when its effects were not fully understood. A well-known character that expresses these effects is the hatter from Alice in Wonderland, who exhibits erratic and eccentric behavior. This poisoning was also known as the Mad Hatter Syndrome, given that hatters used mercury nitrate when making hats, and exposition to vapors of this compound caused dementia in hatters. In “The Vanishing” there is a key moment in which it can be confirmed that the three men were exposed to mercury vapors. This is when the keepers pick up mercury from the floor, which had leaked from a mechanical part of the lighthouse. Even when they used special equipment to pick it up, the mercury leak is confirmed, for which they could be exposed. Later, we see that one of the men had an episode of dementia in this place and he starts talking to himself. That mercury poisoning is not a common problem anymore and that the effects of it are only briefly mentioned can come as a disadvantage, as a few things can remain ambiguous and without explanation. Putting mercury poisoning as the central axis gives sense to all that happens in the movie, the decisions taken by the protagonists in high tension moments and the effects of these decisions in their mental health and behavior.

That the mental health of the protagonists is one of the essential elements of the plot puts a lot of weight in the acting. In much of the movie we only have the tree keepers and their interactions between themselves. In this part, Gerard Butler (“300”, “Law Abiding Citizen”), who we are used to seeing in action movies, makes an excellent job interpreting Thomas, who has a more demanding role than the rest as he is more greatly affected by the mercury poisoning and the subsequent events. Whit this I do not want to take anything away from Peter Mullan (“Children of Men”, “Tyrannosaur”) and Connor Swindels (“VS.”), who interpret the other two keepers and function as the experimented keeper and the new and innocent one, respectively and whom, like Butler, have a terrific performance.

One of the negative points that most affect this movie is that the plot is developed too slowly. I understand that a movie like this requires a deep character development, but still, it felt too slow. Some tense parts, which are the most important to propel the mental deterioration of the protagonists, does not quite get to the point of uncomfortableness and despair needed so that the viewer can sympathize with the situation and the protagonists. Also, even though I liked that the mercury situation was not so explicitly discussed, I recognize that, if the viewer fails to recognize it, the quick mental breakdown of the protagonists is hard to explain only with the rest of the events.

“The Vanishing ended up being a mix between drama and psychological thriller, with very few or none horror cinema elements. With this, I felt disappointed, as the premise had a lot of potential to be explored as a horror movie. The most outstanding part was the acting and I think it was good that the viewer had to think to tie the events. This was an interesting movie, but not memorable; is not one of those that stay with you for a long time.

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