Director: Robert Eggers
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman
The thankless, backbreaking toil of the working class; the promise of abundance higher up the economic ladder; entrenched homophobia and repressed homosexuality; the inescapable past; the ruination of alcoholism and its use as a tool to keep men down; the allure of a piscine vagina… All of these issues and more will be ejaculated into the faces of unsuspecting, befuddled and misguidedly tolerant cinema audiences when they sit down to watch Robert Eggers’ celebrated follow-up to 2015 cult horror The Witch.
Now, I loved The Witch. It’s slow-building dread, the cadences of its speech, its claustrophobia, its ability to set up and then beautifully pay off in unexpected ways. Eggers immediately became a golden boy and everything from here on was going to be worth it. Those sentiments come under scrutiny now with the arrival of The Lighthouse, which finds him doubling down on all of these positive traits in service of a hogwash tale that employs tired gimmickry to try to hide… absolutely nothing.
The boxy aspect ratio announces Eggers acting in servitude to great masters of austere cinema. Memories of Sjostrom, Bergman, Laughton, even early Lynch curdle in the pit of the stomach. The film aims for timelessness, but winds up interminable. Forever taking place within greater and greater quotation marks. The Lighthouse aches to be thought of as high art, even as it mocks such feted praise with fart jokes and masturbatory scenes that are self-fulfilling in the extreme. The movie is a 100 minute jerk off, and it seems giddy about itself in this regard. Eggers is fucking laughing at us.
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are lighthouse keepers, commencing a four-week stay on an unknown island in the Pacific (one assumes). Dafoe’s Tom is a former seaman-turned-‘wicky’; for whom lighthousing is now in his bones. Pattinson’s Winslow is his new apprentice with a murky past. They have only each other for company on a sodden rock spattered with seagull shit which, for reasons passing understanding, breeds a strange horniness in both men.
Tom dry humps his mattress while Winslow spies on him. Winslow jerks off over a wooden carving of a mermaid, falling over himself in the tool shed. All the while, Tom keeps Winslow under his thumb. The younger man is forbidden from tending to the light itself. He must remain lower down, cleaning out the foul cistern or scrubbing the floors. But Winslow’s curiosity gets the better of him, and he spies strange slithers of madness occurring at the top of the lighthouse. What’s more, it seems as though Tom has a mind to drive him mad while they wait grimly for a reprieve.
Some credit ought to be offered to Eggers, one assumes, for diligently cultivating his film in the way that he does. Again, he defers to antiquated patters of dialogue, and The Lighthouse is rigorous in its aesthetic. Chiaroscuro and roiling waves. But said diligence is all for nought if there’s no meat on the bone. Or rather, not enough fresh meat to cultivate an appetite.
There are many themes at play here, as suggested at the start, but Eggers appears to have no discipline to follow anything through. The Lighthouse tends to just flail about, caught in its own endless storm. None of its blunt metaphors really coalesce or offer anything further than themselves. While the bait of what awaits Winslow at the top of the phallic structure is as fatally predictable as it is depressingly unoriginal. If you’ve seen Pulp Fiction or Raiders of the Lost Ark then you’ll have an inkling of where this is all headed. Ambiguity can be powerful. Or it can be lazy and lacklustre.
Essentially given a two-hander, Pattinson and Dafoe play it out like champions, rolling around in the shit and piss, hollering madly at each other or dancing drunkenly, ankle-deep in sewage mixed with sea water. Both men are given delirious monologues to plough through and their boldness and bombast is impressive in a sense. But again it is let down by the nagging sense of hollowness to the whole endeavour. It constantly feels as though we’re being given the runaround, as Eggers tries to meme-ify his own movie right in front of us, hungry for this month’s precious re-tweets. Most scenes ratchet up into lunacy before hitting an abrupt reset for new nonsense to ensue. Eggers successfully conjures the effect of time on the island becoming meaningless. So successfully, in fact, that this sense of nauseous inertia breaks out of the screen and into the audience. There’s no shape to this film. No progression. Just variations on the same half-cut battle of wills, over and over and over again.
Jesus, just fuck already.