The Lighthouse (2019)
There is enchantment in the light.
If director Robert Eggers wants to spend the rest of his filmmaking career bouncing around obscure corners of American history and shining a light on relationships in crisis through the lens of folklore, well, that’s just fine by me. He’s two for two at the moment: first there was the sublime colonial horror of The Witch (or The VVitch, if you prefer) in 2015, and now in 2020 (2019 in more civilized climes) The Lighthouse, a brisk, bleak, brilliantly funny two-hander which is sort of Samuel Beckett meets Edgar Allan Poe meets Herman Melville meets H.P. Lovecraft meets … well, the literary and artistic allusions run deep. It’s homages rather than turtles all the way down.
The set up is as cleanly demarcated and efficient as the squared-off aspect ratio employed by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. Some time in the late 19th century, two men arrive on an island off the coast of Maine for a month-long hitch tending the lighthouse there. Old salt Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) — or is it Wick? — is an experienced wickie, but young, doleful Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is new to the job, having changed careers after a stint as a lumberjack in Canada. The barren isle, shot in crisp black and white, is already a desolate and lonely place, swept by harsh winds and beset by hordes of screeching seabirds, but things soon take a turn for the strange: Winslow finds a small statue of a mermaid hidden inside his mattress; Wake refuses to let his subordinate into the upper chamber of the lighthouse where the lamp itself is kept, and seems to be masturbating up there when alone; Winslow begins to experience strange visions of mermaids and murder; the two men quarrel; drinking begins in earnest. How long can this go on?
Eggers, who co-wrote with his brother Max, crafts an eerie, off-kilter microcosm filled with mysteries that are largely left unresolved, which may bug some viewers but that’s kind of the point: the action of the movie is the interaction between these two characters, who are also enigmas to us. Winslow is more or less our point of view character, being new to the island, but his past and identity are obscure. Things get weirder as it becomes apparent that he’s an unreliable narrator, not just because of his own obfuscations, but because he starts missing time and his recollections of past events — which we see play out in the film — are different to what Wake describes to him. We’re all at sea, if you’ll pardon the pun, with no firm anchorage to cling to — we can only parse the increasingly disturbing and often contradictory information presented to us.
Does it need to be said that the performances are excellent? Both Dafoe and Pattinson are … well, ‘a delight’ seems to be out of step with the tone of the film, but there’s so much fun to be had hanging out with Dafoe’s creaky, leather-skinned old sea dog with his beard and pipe and wild accent (the written word can do it no justice) and Pattinson’s sullen belligerent. Their relationship is a fractious and volatile one — Wake works Winslow like a dog, giving him the lion’s share of the grunt work and cleaning, while keeping the lantern room for himself — which becomes a point of obsession for the younger man. But Wake also sings and drinks with Winslow — at one odd point they dance drunkenly draped around each other; at another, they cradle each other as they sprawl near senseless on the floor. There’s a weird, antagonistic intimacy in play that borders on homoeroticism.
That’s never literalized, but then again, so little is in The Lighthouse. Winslow encounters a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman), glimpses a writhing tentacle, a severed head — are these visions of madness or genuine encounters with the supernatural? Do all fall under one category or the other? Who’s to say? It’s a fever dream of a film, starkly monochrome instead of luridly garish, built from symbol, tone, and visual metaphor rather than narrative cause and effect. That’ll alienate some audience members, to be sure, but there’s nothing more oblique going on here than what you find in your more popular experimental cinema; if you know your way around David Lynch and Luis Buñuel, you’re not going to be too lost here, even if getting lost is part of the enjoyment.
Indeed, if The Lighthouse is a small step down from The Witch, it’s because it’s a little too obvious in its deliberate eccentricities. Whereas the authentic colonial period dialogue and religious worldview depicted in The Witch felt new and somewhat revelatory in the film landscape of 2015, similar effects used in The Lighthouse are now familiar tools in Eggers’ belt. For all that his latest film is a dark and increasingly unreal wonder, there’s an unavoidable tinge of familiarity. It would be churlish to damn the film for that — of course, a director’s voice becomes more familiar with each film he makes — but it’s worth noting.
Also worth noting is how goddamn funny The Lighthouse is, although it’s comedic sensibilities are droll and perverse for the most part, and it’s not too proud for a fart joke or two. It’s a deadpan, deliberate, absurdist style of humor rooted in performance. We don’t get zingers, but we are invited to laugh at the sheer ridiculousness of these men and their plight, and thank god for that; this thing treated completely seriously would be unbearable.
Instead, it’s a blast. The Lighthouse is a singular and singularly strange film, and it’s refreshing to encounter a movie that is so stridently and defiantly itself, as though it was made with no expectation of finding an audience, and a palpable indifference to what the audience it does find thinks of it. What’s remarkable about films with that attitude is that they almost inevitably find a small but fervently engaged audience who absolutely plug into what the film is putting down, and there’s no doubt that the people who are open to this salty tale of madness and masculinity are going to dig it. Everyone else? Roll the dice. You might surprise yourself.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson