Wednesday 19 February 2020

The Lighthouse (2020) - Movie Review

I didn’t know what to expect from the sophomore release of Robert Eggers, who gave us the quite fantastic The Witch a few years ago. I don’t even think it’s possible to expect anything from this, either from the viewpoint of someone trying to pick something to watch or as someone in the cinema seat with their ticket in hand. It legit got to a point, around the point of this film’s final reel, that I found myself giving in to the weirdness. I stopped trying to rationalise what I was seeing and just let it all wash over me… and then I made the trip back home. Time for another deep dive as I try and put down on paper why this film is so fucking brilliant.

Let’s start with the literal first thing you see in this film: The frame. Along with being filmed on gorgeous 35mm black-and-white camera stock, it’s also shown entirely in letterbox format. Or, for the nerdier filmgoers out there, 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the kind that was an industry standard during the mid-1920’s-to-early-1930’s when the big ‘silent to sound’ transition was taking place. On the surface, this decision already makes sense, as the tighter-than-usual framing makes the story of two isolated men going insane feel just that little bit more claustrophobic. But as the film goes on, Eggers’ retro artistry turns out to be a lot deeper.

The stark grayscale banks on the contrast between light and darkness, giving the film a certain German Expressionist look; like a less-angular F. W. Murnau. And with the story’s occasional musings on the working man, there’s definitely a bit of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin poking out through the dialogue and even some of the framing. Given this film’s initial release date in 2019, also known as The Year Of Cinematic Capitalism (between the Disney monopoly and Parasite basically being the film that gave the twelve-month stretch its pop culture identity), there’s likely a ‘working class blues’ take to be gotten out of this as well.

Not that the reference points are all visual, though. The script, written by Robert and his brother Max Eggers, is this whirling tempest made of equal parts Hemingway and Melville sea-farer mythology, old-school Greek mythology, Lovecraftian psycho-horror, Freudian psycho-analysis, and even a bit of The Odd Couple.

Yeah, that is genuinely how sitcom the main (read: only) pairing in the film turns out, although I’d argue that that is likely intentional. There is a very thick absurdist vein running through the entire film, showing Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as a lighthouse keeper and a lighthouse keeper-in-training, and as they trade seadog-isms, the gradual erosion of their sanity turns darkly comical. With it carrying the same foreboding and almost-tactile approach to atmosphere that made Witch so gripping, the sudden giggling might feel a bit out-of-nowhere but it turns out to be quite necessary to alleviate how morbid this can get.

Actually, now that I think about it, it makes all kinds of sense that this came from the same mind that brought us The Witch, as this feels like the other side of that film’s coin. Where The Witch was ultimately a man vs. nature story, where said nature was profoundly feminine, this film is all about masculine nature. Isolated from pretty much anything they could define as ‘normal’, Pattinson’s Ephraim and Dafoe’s Thomas basically have their own madness burn away at their identities, leaving only their most primal forms behind. And when combined with the more nautical themes of the dialogue, it ends up deconstructing that sailor mythology and taking it to its most natural conclusion: It is naught but the musings of the bored and sloshed.

And the horny, which is where things somehow get even more intriguing. I find myself quite fortunate that I managed to cover Pattinson in High Life last year, because without it, I really wouldn’t have had any frame of reference for how weirdly sexual this film gets. Between the mermaid imagery, the almost-divine reverence the leads have for the quite-phallic Lighthouse of the title, and the frequent masturbatory squatting, it takes on a certain queer dimension.

As you’ve probably picked up by now, this is a remarkably dense film, one where the willingness to take the deep dive into its ideas is likely bound by how much you’re willing to vibe with the tightening atmosphere of the whole thing. Well, if Pattinson and Dafoe giving some of the greatest performances to date isn’t enough to sell you on the whole thing, maybe the prospect that you likely haven’t seen a film quite like this one before will clinch it. Robert Eggers has proven himself as a genuine horror auteur, one who has sufficiently trounced the sophomore slump and can stand proud alongside the new vanguard that is currently leading genre cinema into a truly exceptional era.

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