THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019) – Review
This week brings another interesting pairing of actors. It was just a week ago that Angelina Jolie and Michele Pfieffer squared off in MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL. Now the new film is not nearly as family-friendly though it too has moments of fantasy and fantastical beings. Oh, and there’s nobody else around (for 95 or so percent of the running time). Really, only the two men, bringing to mind both movie versions of the play SLEUTH, though the setting this time is not nearly as cozy and comfy as an English country estate. Its proximity to the ocean might be appealing for many (several of these structures have been converted to homes and vacation rental spots), who have made it a staple of nautical art (you might see one in a painting hanging at a library or hospital). Ah, but back in the late 19th century, there was nothing quaint about them, as these two gifted actors show us. Life was brutally difficult working and living in THE LIGHTHOUSE.
The title structure is located on an island on the Atlantic (the filming location was Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia, Canada). The time is 1890 as a medium-size boat (a bit bigger than a canoe) breaches the shore. Two figures walk out of the lighthouse’s front entrance as two men drag their duffel bags up the trail. The new occupants are Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and his supervisor Thomas Wake (Willam Dafoe). Over supper, we learn that the duo will be stationed there for the next four weeks. A conflict quickly arises when Ephraim declines to share a bottle of booze with Thomas in a toast (the younger man believes it will violate the “rulebook”). Thomas then lays out the daily routines. He will man the spinning light through the evening hours as Ephraim sleeps. With the dawn, he will tend to the chores, shoveling coal, cleaning the tower, sweeping out the quarters, while Thomas rests, though he will inspect and supervise in between his slumbers. Tensions begin to mount early on as the elder accuses the younger of sloth and poor work habits, threatening to “dock” his pay. The frustrations, paired with the nasty cold weather, chip away at Ephraim, whose only retreat is his dreams of a lovely mermaid. Soon he begins to have a difficult time separating fantasy from reality (the pesky aggressive seagulls aren’t helping). As the end of their tenure approaches, he joins Thomas on a booze-filled bender. But the wind is changing as the gauges indicate a storm on its way. If this jeopardizes their departure, will the solitude lead to madness and murder?
This edgy indie thriller provides a great platform for the two actors of different decades or even centuries. Pattinson is a star for this new century, earning early stardom as the lead sparkly vamp in that (unmentionable) young adult novel film series. But rather than go the easy, safe heartthrob route, he’s been choosing several really adventurous roles, some (like this) are truly “out there”. From the first silent moments of the opening scene, his haunted, dark eyes draw us in (much like the “pre-talkie” screen icons), making us wonder what’s going on behind them. For the next act or so he lumbers about the settings, leaving the verbiage to his co-star. But as he goes about the grueling daytime hours we see him tense up, his reserves gradually crumbling away by the elements and his relentless overseer. The slow, slow burn adds to the shock of his eventual outburst, reminding us of a certain famous sailor’s mantra, “I’s has all I kin’ stands, an’ I can’t stands no more!”. His inner monster, despite the mermaid’s high-pitched screech, is free, and no one will chain him again. Particularly his tormentor boss, Thomas is played with gritty gusto by Dafoe, representing the previous century (his screen work goes back to 1980, nearly four decades). His Mr. Wake is a riff on classic seafarin’ salts, one who spouts endless ocean cliches after a mug or two of liquor (his “toasts” with odes to King Triton feel endless). Immediately his rejection of hygiene (watch Ephraim wince as the elder’s every step emits a new round of flatulence) is a prelude to his irritating demeanor that leads to the bullying of his “charge”. There’s a gleam in Dafoe’s crinkled eyes as he delights in new humiliations for Winslow. His only moments of joy are those spent bathed in the tower’s blinding light (is that his naked form in silhouette), somehow free of his infirmities (part of a lower leg is in Davy Jones’ Locker). When the food runs out, and the back-up case of booze is dug up, Dafoe shows us that Wade is in complete freefall, embracing Winslow as a son, then pushing him aside. Add this to Dafoe’s already impressive roster of roles.
In the opening moments, the viewer is plunged into an almost alien world, thanks to the nearly square screen ratio (1:19 to 1) and the harsh black and white cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, utilizing many antique lenses and filters. This accentuates the rough textures of the island, but also of the actors (every bristle of Ephraim’s mustache, and every wrinkle on Tom’s sea breeze-beaten face). And that ratio adds to the claustrophobia, a disorienting choice from director Robert Eggers in his first film since the similarly off-kilter THE WITCH. Like that thriller, Egger gets us inside the heads of his characters, showing us how the harsh environs can make you question your senses and eventually lose all touch with reality. The flights of fancy have a true threatening feel with a sea beauty suddenly delivering more pain than pleasure. Observing all are the dead-eyed gulls, a squawking “Greek chorus”, hovering and threatening an attack (Hitchcock was on to something). The script (co-written by Robert’s brother Max) is too slow-moving at times and indulges in a few too much gratuitous scatology (really, emptying bedpans), but this steady descent into madness (a longer journey than JOKER) is one that may haunt your dreams, thanks to the remarkable work of these two gifted actors. Strangely THE LIGHTHOUSE illumianates the darkness of the two characters’ souls.
3 out of 4
THE LIGHTHOUSE opens everywhere and screens exclusively in the St. Louis area at the AMC Dine-In Theatres West Olive 16 and the Hi-Pointe Theatre