Lighthouse, TheReviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 01/17/20 09:43:58
Among about 51 other things, 'The Lighthouse' may be Robert Eggers’ idea of a stoner comedy.This writer-director, who debuted with 2015’s indelible The Witch, has decided this time out to move away from severely pious 16th-century Puritans and shake hands with severely strange 19th-century “wickies,” or lighthouse keepers. The excessively bearded Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is in charge — “I tend the light,” he growls — and the younger Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is his assistant, charged with such chores as swabbing the floor and making sure the cistern is free of human waste and seagull carcasses. The two men quarrel and drink and share many sullen meals and drink and fight and drink and dance. Eventually they run out of drink and get into the turpentine, which Ephraim cuts with honey. Shit gets trippy.
The Lighthouse was shot old-school — like, ancient-school — on black-and-white 35mm film, in the square ratio of 1.19:1. So it looks like an experiment from the silent era, except that it isn’t silent; a foghorn rattles and hums throughout the proceedings as it might in a David Lynch movie, and indeed The Lighthouse might be one of the few films imaginable on a plausible double bill with Lynch’s Eraserhead. In both movies, the universe — a shared, understood reality — seems dizzyingly akilter, the world a lump of Play-Doh shaped by incomprehensible and inhuman hands. Both are works of gnarled beauty, rooted in the muck and runoff of human industry, almost atremble with fierce sexual impaction. You could say that The Lighthouse is the story of men driven mad by the encroachment of post-humanity, and Eggers might be fine with that. You could say it’s about repressed homosexuality and how it surfaces as fear of women — mermaids, seagulls, tentacles — and Eggers might nod at that, too.
With a few brief exceptions, the whole movie is Dafoe and Pattinson, who dig hungrily into the situation and the opportunities it affords to go hog-wild. Dafoe’s Thomas is a blustering, one-legged stereotype of a sea dog, but the actor burrows into it and makes Thomas a man of guttural poetry. Pattinson counters with an almost entirely physical performance (“I ain’t much fer talkin’,” says Ephraim) that ramps up into fear and loathing. Both men, Eggers hints, may or may not be dangerous. When they come to blows, we fear for Ephraim the most, even though Thomas is older and disabled, because Dafoe is traditionally intimidating. But Pattinson’s Ephraim has the edge in terms of delusion fed by horror and guilt. The creatures of nightmare around them may be supernatural or psychological, but the implication is that the men, individually, have played this battle out before, and were only awaiting each other so that the lunacy could come to full fruition. A thousand thousand slimy things live on, and so do they.
The Lighthouse has echoes of Melville and Lovecraft as well as Coleridge and Greek mythology, all stirred together in a psychedelic stew, or a cup of turpentine and honey. The honey is the film’s sumptuous aesthetic — Jarin Blaschke’s sharp, finely grained photography; Mark Korven’s score, shrieking like seagulls or booming like a kraken; Craig Lathrop’s unfriendly-to-human-consciousness production design. (The lighthouse itself, it surprises me not at all to learn, was built for the film.) There is also fart humor — I told you this was Eggers’ stoner comedy — and squalor involving human and seagull scat, and a prosthetic that, we are told, was “based on shark labia.”
If, by this point in the review, The Lighthouse sounds like your thing, it most assuredly is; if not, then boisterously not. By the end of the film, when we see the lighthouse’s working Fresnel lens — historically accurate, we are assured, though it looks like a spaceship engine — the luminescent awe and horror recall the soul-blasting finales of 2001 as well as Eraserhead, before the very final shot, which evokes the legend of Prometheus. The Lighthouse is like an entire literature-and-film course whittled down to an hour and forty-nine minutes, but fun as all get out, capped off with an (of course) authentic shanty that will corkscrew its way into your temporal lobe for a day or so.Go look for this thing, or don’t; you know where on the spectrum you fall.
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