Robert Pat­tin­son shines in The Lighthouse

Review: Robert Eggers, directing fearlessly, paints a vivid scene that he will subsequently take a mean pleasure in trashing.

Rat­ing: 5/5

What counts as a spoil­er and what is accept­able as mere descrip­tion of the blus­ter and folderol of a movie high in colour? The Light­house presents a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem for the review­er in that explain­ing its plot points (a man goes crazy while trapped in a remote light­house with a gruff light­house keep­er) doesn’t ruin any­thing, but giv­ing away cer­tain visu­al treats or uproar­i­ous lines of dia­logue could take away from the many great plea­sures this film has to offer. 

At its out­set, The Light­house is all stark aus­ter­i­ty, its crag­gy stars (Robert Pat­tin­son and Willem Dafoe) appear­ing to come togeth­er to form one jut­ting cheek­bone to rule them all. Pat­tin­son is mous­ta­chioed and rangy; Dafoe’s wicked rodent fea­tures peak out of a heavy beard. In con­scious­ly anti­quat­ed black and white, their boat lashed by waves, star­ing past or into the cam­era in their turn, they could be the sub­jects of an ear­ly daguerreo­type of workers.

Robert Eggers, direct­ing fear­less­ly, paints a vivid scene that he will sub­se­quent­ly take a mean plea­sure in trash­ing: that of Ephraim Winslow (Pat­tin­son), arriv­ing on a rocky island to work as sec­ond in com­mand at a light­house to the terse and boozy Tom­my Wake (Dafoe), who swift­ly sets him to back-break­ing work. In a hand­ful of sen­su­ous scenes (the movie’s lan­guage is dirt and oil, booze, stench, sweat and sea-spray) the film sketch­es this grim rap­port, with Winslow soon becom­ing Dafoe’s grudg­ing dogsbody.

At the same time, mys­te­ri­ous forces are clear­ly at play on the island – Winslow finds a mys­te­ri­ous, voodoo-like stat­ue of a mer­maid among the bris­tles of the pal­let he sleeps on, and is attacked by a gull with a bad tem­per – that threat­en to dereg­u­late this rou­tine. As the storms grow stronger and the pair seek refuge in drink, the pow­er dynam­ic begins to shift and blur, both men switch­ing between slur­ring friend­ship and bit­ter resent­ment; there appears to be a vio­lent Oedi­pal qual­i­ty to their rela­tion­ship. Is Winslow los­ing his mind?

It’s hard to explain the mad­ness that begins to descend, and the tru­ly unique tone that Eggers alights on in con­junc­tion with his actors as he sub­jects them to relent­less degra­da­tions. Eggers’s pho­tog­ra­phy has a blis­ter­ing vivid­ness to it, a very fine work on light and shade, and the film lux­u­ri­ates in so much ooze and detri­tus. In a hilar­i­ous scene Winslow is charged with emp­ty­ing the bed­pans and trudges along a crag to chuck the exc­re­ta into the sea, where­upon a gust of wind flings them back in his face.

At anoth­er point, Dafoe car­ries on talk­ing while being buried, his mouth and eye-sock­ets fill­ing with clumps of earth as he spit-muf­fles his lines. The film’s lan­guage is almost a par­o­dy of high-flown sea-dog ver­nac­u­lar, and the film is jar­ring­ly fun­ny, which sits so uneasi­ly with its wor­ry­ing edit­ing and decoupage, its mes­mer­ic dream sequences, its aggres­sive homo­erot­i­ca and stern pho­tog­ra­phy. Dafoe and Pat­tin­son could not be more game: the for­mer gives a barn­storm­ing per­for­mance as the for­bid­ding cap­tain, chew­ing over meaty lines of invec­tive, and Pat­tin­son cheer­ful­ly degrades him­self, sul­ly­ing his looks with grime and work­ing his objec­ti­fied body to the bone. These are the ele­ments that con­sti­tute spoil­er mate­r­i­al, the meat and drink of the movie: its sheer mox­ie, its risks and surprises.

With The Light­house, Eggers has craft­ed a great hulk­ing beast of a film, an art enter­tain­ment, a honk­ing night­mare come to life, a dirty cos­mic joke that stinks of piss and moon­shine. Don’t find out too much about it.

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