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In Theaters: THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

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THE LIGHTHOUSE
(US/Brazil - 2019)

Directed by Robert Eggers. Written by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers. Cast: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, Valeriia Karaman. (R, 109 mins)

"How long have we been on this rock? Five weeks? Two days? Help me to recollect." 

2016's THE WITCH heralded a unique new voice in writer/director Robert Eggers, who fashioned his feature debut as a deeply unsettling 17th-century-set slow-burner involving witchcraft, religious hysteria, and one extremely sinister goat. Eggers could've gone in any number of directions in the horror genre, but like his contemporary Ari Aster (HEREDITARY, MIDSOMMAR), he gets even weirder with his long-awaited follow-up THE LIGHTHOUSE, which is bizarre and defiantly non-commercial even by the standards of distributor A24. Sharing writing credit with his brother Max, Eggers' tale of isolation and madness on a distant island off the coast of New England in the late 19th century utilizes the journals of Herman Melville and assorted lighthouse keepers and crusty old sea salts (much like THE WITCH's dialogue was taken in part from documents from the era that it depicts), and showcases a staggeringly realistic depiction of the time and place in all its unforgiving brutality. This is the kind of film where you can feel the dampness and smell the mud, piss, and shit. Eggers veers as far away from commercial expectation as possible, shooting in black-and-white and in the archaic aspect ratio of 1.19:1, which hasn't been regularly deployed since the Weimar-era heyday of German Expressionism, Fritz Lang, and Dr. Mabuse. The tight framing only adds to the sense of isolation and claustophobia in what's essentially a two-character piece where both protagonists' grip on reality and sanity grows more tenuous and frayed by the day.






Wet-behind-the-ears wickie Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives for a four-week stay maintaining a lighthouse and the surrounding island with aging, crotchety Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Wake is already there waiting for him, and wastes no time reminding Winslow--condescendingly calling him "lad"--who's in charge and that it's Winslow who will be doing the exhausting grunt work. The perpetually flatulent old coot also expressly forbids Winslow from going to the top of the lighthouse, where the younger man often spots a naked Wake in a trance-like state in the middle of the night, hypnotically drawn to something the blinding glow emanating from the lantern through the Fresnel lens. Winslow also finds a carved figurine of a mermaid stuffed inside in his mattress that he's soon using for his frequent masturbation excursions in the boathouse. He also sneaks into the lighthouse one night and hears Wake in the throes of sexual ecstasy but only catches a quick glimpse of writhing tentacles. He has visions of a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman), and develops a hostile relationship with a pugnacious, one-eyed seagull--this film's Black Phillip--that hangs around the lighthouse and seems to have no patience for anyone's bullshit. Wake warns Winslow to leave the gull alone, and that harming one is bad luck in their line of work, and all the while, tensions mount between the two men, with Winslow growing more concerned with the fact that his predecessor in the job died under mysterious circumstances (Wake says he simply went insane and died), and Wake wanting to more about his enigmatic subordinate's shady past.


There's a definite Lovecraftian element to THE LIGHTHOUSE, but it's less concerned with overt horror and more with a slowly simmering depiction of absolute psychological implosion (and, as a bonus, leaving no bodily function undepicted). It takes some time to figure out who's the crazy one, but things take a turn when one commits an act they were expressly warned not to do. But is he crazy? Or is the other manipulating him and driving him insane? Teetotaler Winslow eventually caves to Wake's peer pressure to drink, further toying with their grip on reality to the point where the alcohol runs out and they start guzzling their kerosene supply. There's much dark humor in the way Wake and Winslow, two guys who don't really like each other but are forced to work together (again, that 1.19:1 aspect ratio really sells the notion of being trapped with nowhere to go), eventually start to resemble an old, bickering married couple (watch how hurt Wake is when he realizes Winslow hates his cooking). That includes some subtly-conveyed, alcohol-fueled, and loneliness-induced loosening of inhibitions (Eggers joked in an interview that the lighthouse is indeed a giant phallic symbol) that have enough implications to almost turn the film into something that can be best described as "Bela Tarr's BROKEBACK LIGHTHOUSE."


It's really hard to divulge any more plot details without going into spoiler territory, and frankly, a film like THE LIGHTHOUSE doesn't make a synopsis very easy anyway, at least without one sounding like they also belong stranded in the same location with Wake and Winslow. But it's quite an experience, filled with startling, symbolic imagery, an insidiously effective use of sound (that foghorn will haunt you for days), production design of almost Kubrickian detail, and breathtaking cinematography by Jarin Blaschke. And while Eggers deserves the accolades for his uncompromising commitment to this mad vision, it's the work of Dafoe and Pattinson that really sells it. The former is a national treasure who's only getting better with age, and Thomas Wake might go down as the ultimate Willem Dafoe performance. Coming off like Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview as Captain Ahab (drink whenever he bellows "Hark!" and "Ye"), a madman-bearded Dafoe disappears into his character, sinking his teeth into Wake's verbose and wonderfully quotable monologues (which really should be released in book form) as if they're a melt-in-your-mouth steak perfectly seasoned and cooked medium rare, and doing so as crazily wide-eyed as possible for long takes without blinking. Likewise, Pattinson continues his streak of fearless and challenging career choices (between this, THE ROVER, GOOD TIME, and HIGH LIFE, he's fast becoming the de facto patron saint of the A24 mainstream audience alienator) that may be coming to a temporary halt now that he's the new Batman. But he's a real deal who's more than sufficiently shaken his TWILIGHT image and anyone who doesn't see that simply hasn't been paying attention. Long story short, if you went into THE WITCH and left feeling let down that it wasn't a generically gore-soaked, jump-scare horror movie, then THE LIGHTHOUSE will probably just actively piss you off. It's hard telling where Eggers will go from here (may I suggest an expressionist silent film with a crazy-eyed and super-toothy Dafoe going full Emil Jannings?), but THE WITCH and THE LIGHTHOUSE have firmly established him as one of today's most gifted filmmakers.





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