New from Al and Linda Lerner on Movies and Shakers: The Lighthouse

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are brutally antagonistic toward each other in riveting performances as lighthouse keepers in this disturbing but enthralling film enhanced by the austere setting shot in black and white. They are the only two characters in the film. To say they get on each others nerves is an understatement. Once you think they may have reached a point where they can get along, it becomes evident. Familiarity breeds contempt and this is no exception. 

No wonder this plays like a horror film coming from brothers, Robert and Max Eggers (The Witch). They used to visit lighthouses in Maine and what better setting for a scary story set in the 1890’s pitching young and old against each other under such claustrophobic circumstances. 

Of course Ephraim (Pattinson) is not happy with the situation and one of the first scenes after they land is his masturbating using a clay statue of a mermaid as his inspiration. That, in itself, is disturbing. Pattinson has become kind of a master of masturbation, this being his fourth film appearance doing so.  It was the first scene he shot for this film.

The two men are supposed to stay a month minding the lighthouse, but when a major storm hits, it drags on longer. As the two men start living in the old lighthouse, the lines are drawn. Ephraim Winslow is a “wickie” or newbie having to live under strict rules set forth by Thomas Wake (Dafoe). Dafoe plays mean, secretive and a control freak all too well, claiming the lighthouse as his personal territory. He makes Ephraim do all the dirty work. It’s exhausting to watch Pattinson’s Ephraim perform grueling physical tasks shoveling mud in a downpour with Thomas berating him for not doing enough at every turn. 

Thomas has his own trademark that starts unexpectedly early in the film. He farts loudly on a regular basis. Granted, this is a normal bodily function that would be commonplace with 2 people living in close quarters. It definitely adds to his character and characterizations, lightening up the depressing tenor of the situation. But it’s something you don’t expect to be so prominent. Perhaps it’s the result of Thomas’ bad cooking, which we’re glad we saw in black and white, because it would likely look positively disgusting in color.  

Director Robert Eggers worked with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke mapping out the camera positions and movements before they started shooting scenes with Dafoe and Pattinson. The framing and angles are so deliberate. And then there are those sea birds. Nasty gulls claim space for themselves as well.

It becomes a life of physical servitude for Ephraim at the whim of Thomas. And he won’t let Ephraim anywhere near the extraordinarily beautiful, massive and powerful megawatt jewel of a beacon inside the top of the lighthouse. The climactic scene of the two going at it, shot in the glaring brightness of the light is frighteningly beautiful. 

Smoking and alcoholic spirits in excess become the only respite until their drunkenness turns violent. Then it becomes a matter of horrific revenge. Just when you think there might be an inkling of understanding, this becomes a devastating horror story. Ephraim’s ability to dig comes in handy. And the birds get their own revenge in a devastatingly gory scene. 

Dafoe is forceful and strong conducting a master class in acting for the younger Pattinson who holds his own playing amazingly restrained, seething underneath. They are powerful in different ways in a story where there are only two characters in the entire film. But despite that magnificent structure with its oversized sparkling jewel at the top radiating bright beams of light, this is one disturbing dark film that may leave you totally depressed. 

A24                    1 Hour 49 Minutes                     R

from Movies and Shakers

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