**** out of ****
(for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language)
Released: October 18, 2019 limited; October 25 expands
Runtime: 109 minutes
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman
Controversy erupted recently when Martin Scorsese deigned to characterize Marvel movies as theme park rides. Of the twenty-plus film mega-franchise, he said, bluntly, “That’s not cinema.” (Francis Ford Coppola went a step further, calling them “despicable.”)
Later clarifying his broadside, Scorsese doubled down. “It’s just that [the MCU] shouldn’t become what our young people believe is cinema.”
So what is cinema? The Lighthouse is.
You don’t even have to like it (and many won’t) to see this as objectively true. The Lighthouse is a genuinely bold artistic vision. Writer/director Robert Eggers (The Witch) is free of any mass market considerations, not so much defying them as being completely oblivious to them. He follows every ambition with abandon, at times so daring that even Paul Thomas Anderson might look a bit conventional by comparison. (In streaming terms, this is for the Criterion Channel crowd, not Netflix, although the former should definitely catch this on the big screen while they can.)
Influenced by masters of the form (from silent era expressionists to the audacity of David Lynch), Eggers’ vision remains ingeniously his own. His allusive, sordid evocations are challenging by their very nature; his provocations instinctive, not calculated or pretentious. This terror trip of despair and torment, quasi-possessed seagulls, and occasional farting isn’t for everybody, but its inherent dissonance only further defines The Lighthouse as art (and cinema) in the purest sense of the ideal.
Set in mid-19th Century New England, The Lighthouse is a rather simple tale of two lighthouse engineers, Thomas and Ephraim (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, respectively). Quarantined from humanity while on their outpost against Mother Nature, they gradually descend into utter madness (Ephraim especially) as an impending storm swells into a Category 5 crescendo.
There’s no real plot to speak of. Scenes follow the duo’s day-to-day and night-to-night grueling existence in an arc that’s psychological, not narrative. Events are linear but often impressionistic, composed more to convey a mood or psychosis. This (rather than action) is the root of the story’s cause-and-effect progression, and that requires much more from the actors and Eggers’ artisans. Without a driving plot machine, performance and craft must captivate and mesmerize – and boy, do they ever.
Starting from a Transcendental austerity (marked notably by the square 1:19:1 aspect ratio, minimal camera movement, and black-and-white palette), Eggers contrasts that stark essence with an unnerving soundscape and composer Mark Korven‘s brawling, oppressive score, infusing everything with ominous horror.
The square frame literally boxes the characters in, enhancing the claustrophobic nature of their quarters and neuroses, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke punctuates the gritty, grainy, naturally-lit aesthetic with compositions of expressionist genius (including my favorite shot of the year, of a naked Dafoe staring light rays into the soul of a cowering Pattinson in the midst of a torrential downpour).
Indeed, for Ephraim, reality itself starts to bend as the mental becomes mystical, and increasingly he cracks under the burden. His perception of everything becomes skewed, including that of his demanding boss Thomas, a man already hyper-realized through Dafoe’s brilliant antagonizing turn.
He’s impressively authentic for the period, enhanced by Eggers’ heavily-researched dialect (with its mix of “ye”s and “ain’t”s) that’s spoken by Dafoe as if its his first language, but then Dafoe elevates the turn into something Shakespearean; an unbroken-take monologue about halfway through really stands out in that regard. Dafoe has had an amazingly diverse career and yet, even in that, this is a standout.
It’s Ephraim’s journey, though, and Pattinson fully commits to how tortured it needs to be. That includes a repressed sexual tension for a man in his primal prime, one who suffers delusions of intimate mermaid fantasies. Yet even his attempts at release (yes, that means masturbation) only magnify Ephraim’s agony and anguish.
EPHRAIM: “I thought you said relief was coming.”
THOMAS: “IF we can wait out the storm.”
That exchange addresses the literal plight they face as the impending storm intensifies, though it may as well be describing their mental state, too. But relief isn’t coming, not of any sort. Utterly tormented, Ephraim’s psychic and carnal energies eventually rage to the breaking point, leaving only destruction in their wake.
In this lighthouse, there is only darkness.