by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Robert Eggers
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 90% Certified Fresh
PLOT: Two lighthouse keepers try to maintain their sanity while isolated on a remote New England island in the 1890s.
NOUN, a piece of orchestral music typically in one movement, on a descriptive or rhapsodic theme
As I watched Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, that term “tone poem” kept leaping to my mind. It’s not told in a standard or familiar fashion. There are scenes where we’re not sure, until they’re over, whether they’re real or not. The Willem Dafoe character, Thomas Wake, makes references to behavior in the past by the Robert Pattinson character, Ephraim Winslow, that Winslow never committed…or did he? We are certain that Wake is the character who is going mad, if he’s not there already. But what if it’s the other way around? Or are they both going mad?
The mood or tone of the piece seems to be insanity and how one might get there given the right circumstances. In many ways, it has quite a bit in common with another sensational tone poem of madness, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).
Two men, Wake and Winslow, are lighthouse keepers in the late 19th century. They are brought to a remote island in the stormy waters off the New England coast and left to fend for themselves for four weeks until the next tender brings supplies. Wake (Dafoe) is a crusty old veteran lighthouse keeper whose speech and mannerisms appear to be based on Long John Silver, right down to the gimpy leg. Winslow (Pattinson) is a much younger and, let us be honest, handsomer gentleman who keeps to himself whenever possible. He tends to his duties, sometimes grudgingly but mostly not, but wonders why Wake flatly refuses to share the duty of tending the actual light source at the top of the lighthouse. That mystery lies at the heart of the film, but don’t expect all your questions to be answered by the time the credits roll. Fair warning.
A key decision by director Eggers was to shoot in black-and-white and in a very old screen format, 1:19, so the picture area is a virtually square space in the center of the screen, with black bars on either side. (The Coen brothers did something similar with their brilliant adaptation of The Tragedy of Macbeth .) This visual language creates a uniquely claustrophobic atmosphere, especially in scenes taking place in Wake’s and Winslow’s quarters. The walls are closer together, the ceiling feels lower, and the actors’ faces seem much closer to the screen than normal. Even exterior shots seem more constricted and confining. Wide open sky doesn’t look as inviting as it might to someone essentially imprisoned on a storm-lashed island for four weeks.
Like all the best films, The Lighthouse begins its descent into madness slowly and gains momentum as time passes. Winslow discovers a mermaid figurine stashed inside his mattress. That night he dreams about a mermaid in the surf. Or was it a dream? We glimpse Wake standing naked at the top of the lighthouse, almost as if he’s worshiping the light itself. When Winslow tries to get a closer look at what Wake is doing up there, he glimpses something…supernatural. Or does he? The film is brilliant at not only portraying mounting madness on the screen, but also at conveying the tone of madness in the cinematography and editing. If we’re not quite sure what is happening, even when we see it happening, that’s on purpose. The audience is meant to be kept off balance throughout the movie to put us in the heads of the two main characters.
Another factor that I found riveting was the acting workshop on display from both Pattinson and Dafoe. We’ve seen this kind of thing from Dafoe before. He chews the scenery with Nicolas Cage-like gusto, spittle flying, prosthetic teeth flashing in manic sneers, and that crazy piratical accent. If it had been revealed during the film that his character’s last name was Osborne, and that he was a distant relative of Norman Osborne from Spider-Man (2002), I would not have been the least surprised.
But equally impressive is Robert Pattinson’s performance, which must be seen to be believed. Here is an actor who is set for life after being a part of two of the most profitable film franchises in history (Twilight and Harry Potter) and who has just rebooted a third (The Batman ). But in this film, he easily keeps pace with Dafoe’s quirkiness, which is not easy. As his character descends into madness (or does he?), Pattinson dances a jig while singing a sea shanty that devolves into complete gibberish. He laughs like a loon. He, ah, takes some time for himself while fondling that mermaid figurine from earlier. It’s the kind of performance that might be described as “courageous.” He swings for the fences with abandon. In so doing, he helps to make The Lighthouse one of the most unique movies I’m ever likely to see.
But what is really going on at the top of that lighthouse? Why do seagulls pester Winslow so often, seemingly unafraid of him in any way? Why does he continue to dream about mermaids? IS he dreaming them? Is Wake actually a merman? Did real foghorns sound like that? Why is one seagull missing an eye?
Well, come on, I’m not actually going to ANSWER those questions, but those are questions that occurred to me. The movie does answer quite a few of them, but not all. The point of the movie, like The Shining, isn’t about solving the mystery. It’s about conveying the mystery, creating a mood of dread, and wallowing in it for a good 110 minutes. It’s not the happiest movie I’ve ever seen, but it’s definitely one of the most original films of the last ten years or so.