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Film

A nightmare at sea: ‘The Lighthouse’

By Luke Goodsell
Robert Eggers’ manic two-hander treads a fine line between artisanal delirium and cheerful base instinct

The Lighthouse

Somewhere on the storm-battered coast of Nova Scotia, between the late 18th century and a time of ancient myth, two men disembark at a lonely lighthouse. The surrounding rocks are menaced by waves and chattering seagulls, while a foghorn blares on a loop like a laugh-track from hell, coolly indifferent to the fates of those in its jurisdiction. As the men prepare to bunk down in their quarters, the first human sound we hear is a fart.

The dissonance between immaculately fussed-over nightmare and cheerfully base instincts runs through The Lighthouse, starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson (in cinemas February 6), a wobbly two-hander of maritime madness that prides itself in its artisanal craftsmanship. Shot in an inky black-and-grey monochrome that recalls Gustave Doré’s etchings from the original Rime of the Ancient Mariner, framed in the Movietone 1.19:1 ratio that fell out of favour in 1932, and with dialogue drawn from 19th-century lighthouse keeper journals (with a dash of Herman Melville for good measure), it’s lovingly designed to evoke an era both historical and legendary, as though the tussle between its characters were playing out against some ancient Greek tableau of warring gods.

The director is Robert Eggers, whose Salem period horror The VVitch (2015) shared a similar penchant for meticulous historical detail, cribbing its dialogue – “Wouldst thou like to live deliciously?” went one infamous enticement – from writings found in 17th-century New England. Sporting the kind of bushy beard that’s been tragically favoured by many urban men over the last decade, Eggers seemed like the kind of guy that might corner you and explain the history of the ethically brewed craft beer he’s just launched, or be found in a Brooklyn bar, three whiskeys in, bellowing a sea shanty of the kind that appear on the soundtrack here. And, as befits the work of a craftsman, The Lighthouse is certainly an impressive construction: from its ashen cinematography (courtesy of Oscar-nominated Jarin Blaschke) through the clanking, heaving machinery of production design that wheezes like a grumpy leviathan, Eggers conjures up a vividly tactile, off-kilter world that sets the stage for spiralling delirium. The production even built its very own lighthouse.

If The Lighthouse sounds overwrought, then for a good stretch, at least, it also manages to be pretty funny – dishing out a streak of grubby humour that offsets the film’s sometimes-turgid surrealism. For that you can thank Dafoe, who leans heartily into his crusty old lighthouse keeper with the relish of an actor’s studio ham, delivering an entertaining, full-tilt caricature. With his Captain Ahab beard, peg leg, pipe and fondness for farting in concerto with the foghorn, Dafoe’s Tom (as he comes to be known) makes for cheerfully garrulous company, and the actor chews into his long-winded dialogues that largely entail his tormenting his junior keeper. Breathlessly ranting and rambling, he’s given to barking instructions about sucking the nails of the floorboard clean until they “gleam like a sperm whale’s pecker” – when he’s not locked in slimy sexual congress with some fantasy sea creature in the lighthouse turret, a forbidden zone and source of the movie’s would-be mystery to which only he holds the key.

Tom’s cantankerous mind games – to quote the old meme, he’s more Dafoe than DaFriend – also etch a generational war of attrition, with more than a touch of the Oedipal. As the junior keeper, Ephraim Winslow, a mumbly Pattinson dressed in an oversized moustache, flat cap and dungarees, might as well be some inner-city millennial doomed to meet his maker, suffering through the backbreaking labour of a working class that’s too often appropriated in fashionable solidarity. You can almost imagine him turning around, after one too many beratings, to retort, “OK, ye boomer.”  

The tussle makes for a fun, sometimes generously foul first half, with Dafoe gnawing on scenery and Pattinson fumbling around for his bearings. There’s a hint, though sadly neglected, of homoeroticism, as Tom calls his young charge “pretty as a picture”, and daddy and young buck, under the ever-erect phallus of their station, tangle in jigs and jousts and eventually crumple into embraces that are strictly bro-downs. “Ye were fond of me lobster, say it!” Tom beseeches Ephraim, in one of the movie’s most hilarious moments, like a neglected spouse desperate for approval. And there’s the suggestion, embellished by Tom, that Ephraim’s predecessors had lost their minds under the “enchantment” of the lighthouse; whether it’s the result of supernal devilry or some kind of old-fashioned Machiavellian torment is anyone’s guess. Whatever the old man is hiding, he keeps his sorcery under lock and key.

“Doldrums, evil’r than the devil,” Tom warns Ephraim, “boredom makes men into villains.” And sure enough – in an early sign of, and analogy for, the movie’s over-cranked weirdness – the young man is soon vigorously masturbating to a carved siren statue, unleashing a rather silly montage of mermaids, sea-beast genitalia and whinnying grunts that seem intended to unnerve but surely inspire chuckles. When the two men’s relief command fails to arrive, and the cabin fever ramps up, the film, too, shifts gears into a fevered but repetitive sequence of excessive imagery: squawking, smashed gulls, writhing tentacles and grunted spats, all fuelled by the kerosene that’s come to serve as the outpost’s de rigueur mixer. Into this stylistic soup, Eggers stirs Lovecraftian imagery, Bergman-esque existentialism and Greek myth (with passing references to Prometheus et al.), serving a handsome-looking batch of ostensibly strange, rich symbolism that’s also something of a curdled cold brew.

“You sound like a god damn parody!” screams Ephraim, mid meltdown, at Tom, an insult that Dafoe – champ that he is – just takes as a challenge to go bigger. The veteran actor’s voice might be too thin to deliver the stentorian ballast needed to inspire terror, but his conviction, and sense of the absurdity of it all, sells the performance. Pattinson, so effective at playing frazzled and/or unhinged in Good Time (2017) and High Life (2018), fares less well here, flailing about and bugging his eyes valiantly but looking like a drama student out of his depth. At the very least, everyone (save the seagulls, poor things) seems to be having a swell time.

If I sound unfairly ambivalent, then rest assured: The Lighthouse is catnip for people who love to inflict words like “batshit” and “bonkers” on their readership. There’s plenty of fun to be had here, to be sure, but at a certain point it feels insufficiently unhinged to conjure the giddy seasickness to which it strives. Eggers seems to be shooting for some of the more unnerving ickiness of Lars von Trier – there are several images indebted to the sexual body horror of Antichrist – and visually, at least, Eggers has put some of the more striking compositions on screen of any film in recent memory (read: you’ll be scrolling past them on every cine-bro’s blog for the next few years to come.) And anything willing to take a swing at this kind of lunacy – and with this much amusing flatulence – deserves to be encouraged in the current theatrical climate. But where The VVitch appended a transcendent, if calculated ending to its historical dithering and leaned into a full-tilt evil showstopper, The Lighthouse’s attempt to summon its own mysterious forces more or less fizzles in an anticlimax of strained wackiness. Sometimes you get the elaborate craft-brew spiel, when all you want to do is get drunk.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

@timebombtown

The Lighthouse

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