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The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse comes to us from Robert Eggers, who also co-wrote the film alongside his brother, Max Eggers. The film (aside from a couple of non-speaking bit parts) is a two-hander in which Willem Dafoe plays an old lighthouse keeper and Robert Pattinson plays his new assistant, on a four-week assignment. The four weeks are up before the halfway point and the two of them are still there, with a terrible storm cutting them off entirely from the outside world.

There’s no telling when the next boat will be coming in, there’s no more food in storage, the drinking water is contaminated, the living quarters are breaking down all around them, but there’s still a caseload of booze left intact. And when the booze is gone, they’re drinking the lantern oil. So naturally, the two of them slide into paranoid, delusional, homicidal craziness in short order.

Willem Dafoe swings for the fences as an old-fashioned saltwater sea dog. At one point, Pattinson’s character straight-up calls him a Captain Ahab parody, and it’s uncanny how on-the-nose that line is. Then again, it’s Willem freaking Dafoe — of course he takes this cartoon stereotype and makes it into something endlessly fascinating with his patented brand of crazy.

As for Pattinson, he builds very nicely on top of his High Life performance, here playing a man steadily losing his mind through a variety of internal and external factors. Externally, he’s doing pretty much all of the hard manual labor (shoveling coal, patching the roof, fixing the plumbing, scrubbing the floors, etc.), while Dafoe’s character does apparently nothing but cooking, manning the lantern, and berating his assistant for not doing a week’s work in two hours. Internally, living in total isolation has made him sexually frustrated to an unhealthy degree, manifesting in a strange mermaid fixation. And of course he’s working through a few terrible secrets as well.

Pattinson’s transformation over the course of the movie is compelling and terrifying to watch. And of course his interplay with Dafoe is phenomenal, here delivering the most layered, complex, and unapologetically brutal rivalry I’ve seen between two men since There Will Be Blood.

The visuals are nicely unsettling, with the black and white visuals making strong symbolic overtones regarding light and darkness. Still, it’s the sound design that really powers the movie. Of course we have the sounds of the ocean and the storm, all beautifully layered and mixed with the dialogue. But what’s far more vital and impressive are the sounds of the lighthouse itself. There’s a kind of… I think it’s a fog horn attached to the coal furnace, I’m not really sure. The point is, it’s a terribly unsettling sound heard at regular intervals. We’ve also got the clockwork mechanism that turns the lantern of the lighthouse, so clockwork sounds are heard in symbolically relevant ways.

The whole film is loaded with aggressively batshit imagery. The metaphors are abstract and fucked-up, clearly intended to show the characters losing their minds with less regard to making any kind of sense. Yet there’s clearly some kind of method in this madness, and I think I’ve got a decent guess as to what that is.

Consider The Witch, Eggers’ previous film. Both movies are about characters who steadily go insane and die horrible supernatural deaths as they suffer in isolation. More importantly, both films feature characters who are decent at first glance, but eventually come undone by their respective sins and flaws. In the case of The Witch, we’ve got a whole family of characters unmade by their own pride and their innate urge to prove themselves the holiest by any means necessary. Compare that to The Lighthouse, in which both characters are decent enough on paper, yet they’re both undone by their respective sins (pride and selfishness in the case of Dafoe’s character, wrath and lust in the case of Pattinson’s).

Naturally, The Lighthouse isn’t as overtly Christian as The Witch, but there’s still a kind of divinity at play here. Maritime superstitions are presented as gospel, and Neptune is invoked as a legitimate deity. We’ve even got mermaids who aren’t quite angels of God and they’re not quite demons from Satan, but very likely occupy similar positions under Neptune.

Far more notably, Dafoe’s character is zealously protective of the lighthouse’s lantern. Over time, The Light becomes symbolic of some higher calling or a line of communication to some Supreme Being. Thus The Lighthouse deals symbolically with humanity’s relation to the Divine, while The Witch is very literally about humanity’s relation to the Infernal. Thus the two films are companion pieces about higher spiritual powers that we mere mortals are physically, mentally, emotionally, fundamentally powerless against.

There’s not much else to say about The Lighthouse, except that it is beautifully fucked up. Between Dafoe, Pattinson, and the Eggers Brothers, there’s more than enough mad genius to go around in this picture. I can’t promise it will make any kind of sense, but I can guarantee that it will leave you shell-shocked. Much like The Witch before it, the film is far more of a creepy psychological thriller than a straight-up horror, but there are still some deeply unsettling images here to haunt your nightmares for some time to come.

If you’ve got the guts, give it a try.

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