The Lighthouse ★★★
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A Tale of Isolation
Two people who don’t get along very well are condemned to 4 weeks—and maybe more—of isolation. A bad marriage under stay-at-home restrictions in the time of coronavirus? No. Two men running a lighthouse in the 1890s on an island off the coast of New England. One of them, Thomas (Willem Dafoe), a brusque, mean-spirited, authoritarian old man, is in charge, or thinks he is—and the distinction hardly matters. The “junior man” (Robert Pattison), perhaps in his thirties, swabs the floors, shovels coal, and cleans the exterior of the structure while suspended by ropes, all the while being called “slow” and a “dullard”—“you’ll like it cause I says you will,” shouts Thomas. While the younger man seems to be the innocent victim of an overbearing and insensitive supervisor, his changing backstory, including a stint as a lumberjack in Canada, suggests all is not as it seems.
“The Lighthouse” could be understood as a throwback to the psychological dramas of the 1940s, when Freud held sway, and to one in particular: “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), which featured three prospectors in a remote region of Mexico grappling with jealousy, suspicion, and the kind of insanity that the lust for gold can produce. There’s no money at stake in “The Lighthouse,” but like “Treasure” it has an elderly protagonist who bears responsibility for things coming apart, and like the John Huston classic, it has the mark of a father/son story. Tom is the withholding figure of paternal authority. He withholds praise for the hard work his “son” does; withholds access to the area housing the light, a space that also has a powerful sexual valence, situated as it is at the top of the phallic structure (“the light has its mysteries”). Tom even, for much of the film, refuses to use the name of his co-worker, who first asks to be called Ephraim Winslow, but is in fact also named Thomas—or Tommy. Tom will not let Tommy grow up, and the son’s resentment builds and spills out. “You’re not a captain…of this ship,” Tommy says, “or any ship,” deducing that Tom’s backstory too is likely a lie.
Two immoral men, each with an unreliable history, cast out of time.
Tommy has his own problems, ones largely independent of his taskmaster. Sexually frustrated, he fixates on the idea of the mermaid, hallucinating on the one hand, masturbating with a ceramic figurine, on the other…hand. He’s troubled, too, and brought to an egregious act of violence, by the hectoring seagulls that disturb his work on the lighthouse grounds—an act of violence that reveals not only the tumult within, but what he’s capable of. Tommy’s claim to be “god-fearing” is another of his fictions. Two immoral men, each with an unreliable history, cast out of time.
Things might have been different had not mother nature—or the gods (possibly to avenge the death of an ominous bird)—intervened, ushering in a storm of Shakespearean proportions. Tom is the crazed King Lear—or is it Captain Ahab?—laying a curse on the seething and confused younger man, rambling and raving in a poetic tongue akin to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where another bird, in that case the albatross, found its revenge.
There are a few fitful moments of physical coming together, well short of bonding, fueled by alcohol and finally by gulps of gasoline mixed with honey. But this is no buddy film.
Dramatic tension, in this tale based on true events, is heightened by the black and white palette, and by the 1:1 screen ratio of Director Robert Eggers (whose principal work has been in production design), which contains and restricts the characters, accentuating the experience of isolation. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke was nominated for an Oscar for his compelling framing of both the men in their constrained interiors and of the harshness of the Nova Scotia landscape. Dafoe (who has played more weird types than most actors) is perfect as the righteous, domineering, and unrepressed “captain.” Pattison, still remaking himself from his teen heartthrob performances in the 2008-2012 “Twilight” series and about to be Batman, projects just the right combination of hostility, angst and desperation as the repressed “wickie” who is never allowed to “work the light.”
“The Lighthouse” will appeal to moviegoers who enjoy the intimacy and confinement of the stage--and who don’t mind—or even relish—a journey to the edge of horror.
Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, Valeriia Karaman
Oscars: Nominated for Best Achievement in Cinematography (Jarin Blaschke)
Runtime: 87 minutes