November 12, 2019 – Like many others, I am fascinated by lighthouses, especially those equipped with large Fresnel lenses used to capture and collimate light, enabling them to be seen many miles away. Those lenses are a thing of beauty and the architectural construction of lighthouses is both unusual and striking. This movie kind of spoiled all that for me. It is both boring and unpleasant to sit through.
This is a movie about two men who make a slow, grueling, gritty descent into madness while trapped on a remote island. They are trapped in the Yin and Yang of sexual attraction for each other, while also being repelled from each other by their common morality which tells them this attraction is a deadly sin. Fueled by alcoholism and other unnamed chemicals and personality conflicts, their relationship slowly deteriorates from miserable into a stormy shipwreck.
Willem Dafoe (“The Florida Project”) and Robert Pattinson (the “Twilight” movies) play the two lighthouse keepers, Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow, respectively. Wake runs the lighthouse in the late 1800s on a remote island like Captain Bligh ran the Bounty, ordering Winslow about, making unreasonable demands, criticizing him constantly and demeaning him. Winslow resents being treated this way and the anger builds in him. Yet, these two men are sexually attracted to each other, and that creates even more tension.
The two men engage in psychological and physical warfare, but somehow make it through the month of Winslow's contract, but then a sudden storm strands them on the island. Wake thinks the storm arose because Winslow killed a seagull that had been haunting him. It is bad luck to kill a seagull, Wake says, because the birds contain the souls of sailors who died at sea.
Winslow is a closed-mouth man when he arrives on the island, but Wake gets him to start talking. He also refuses to drink alcohol at first, but Wake finally gets him liquored up. This turns out to be a big mistake. It results in drunken parties where the two men fight, dance and embrace. Winslow confesses some past evil deed (possibly a homosexual deed) to Wake in one of these drunken episodes. When the alcohol runs out, the two men resort to even more toxic chemicals.
There are numerous suggestions in the film about the sexual nature of the relationship between the two men. Wake has some kind of strange sexual relationship with the lighthouse beacon itself. He refuses to allow Winslow into the top of the lighthouse. He is seen naked and masturbating next to the light. Winslow is also seen masturbating. He has sexual visions and dreams of a mermaid (played by Valeriia Karaman) and dark dreams of storms and menacing, octopus-like arms.
While Pattinson and Dafoe both give fine performances in this film, the repulsive characters they play are not actually very interesting, because we don't really learn much about their past and how they got to be the broken men they are now. This film reminded me of others, such as “Sleuth” (1972) in which the entire drama is confined to two characters. This limited dramatic narrative structure seems too thin here, but the limits were overcome in films like “Locke,” “Gravity” and “Before Sunset.”
The film was reportedly shot on black and white 35mm film. It is projected, however, in a very narrow aspect ratio, 1.19:1 (this is even narrower than the actual aspect ratio of 35mm film, which is 1.37:1, called the “Academy Standard”). The black and white, narrow screen look of this film is a sure sign of an art film (a film in which the artistic goals of the filmmakers are a much higher priority than, and somewhat disconnected from, the goal of entertaining the audience) rather than a commercial one. Some also think a film shot in black and white is automatically more artistic than a film shot in color.
If you like art films, you may like this one. I can take 'em or leave 'em, and I definitely felt like leaving this one, mainly because of the two characters, which I found both uninteresting and repulsive. The ugliness of this agonizingly slow-moving film is not just because of the images of urine, feces and semen, the sound of flatulence, or the bleak primitive interiors or the equally bleak exterior scenes. The prime ugliness is in the personalities, words and actions of these two characters.
This movie is written, directed and produced by Robert Eggers (co-written by his brother Max Eggers) who also directed “The Witch” (2015). “The Witch” was another “artistic triumph” that I did not like at all. I was hoping I'd like this one, but I did not. I'll know better than to spend money on the next Eggers art film. But if you like “The Witch,” you'll probably like “The Lighthouse” too. This film rates a D.
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