Sunday 5 January 2020

The Lighthouse (Canada/USA 2019: Dir Robert Eggers)

In Eggers's monochromatic, deeply symbolic follow up to 2015's The VVitch, two men arrive on an inhospitable tiny rocky island off the coast of Maine in the 1890s (actually Nova Scotia), to start a four week shift operating and maintaining a lighthouse and its outbuildings. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is the elder of the two, an experienced 'wickie' who takes no time in establishing his authority over the younger Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). Winslow is assigned the heavy day to day manual work, including roof repairs and cleaning out the cistern, whereas Wake does all the cooking, reserving the duties of maintaining the light for himself ("The light is mine!" he tells Winslow). The pair forge an uneasy alliance as they wait out their month of duty, with Wake, a hard drinker, chiding Winslow at every step of the way for slacking in his duties. Winslow, refusing to drink alcohol because of his sense of responsibility on the job and because he doesn't want to risk his pay being docked, suffers greatly, but in silence.

Winslow's mind, bothered by a past guilt and fleeting visions of a mermaid on the beach, as well as something strange in the lighthouse tower, is also increasingly overcome by anger at his treatment. Things come to a head on the day before the pair are to be relieved of their shift and picked up by boat. Bothered by the constant pecking of one of the gulls visiting the island, Winslow kills it, bashing its head and body on the rocks until little remains of the bird. It's a disturbing scene, more so because in one of Wake's salty homilies Winslow has been warned that to harm the gulls will bring bad luck. Sure enough that night a storm breaks: at the same time because he thinks it's his last night at the lighthouse Winslow relaxes his decision not to drink, and the pair become hopelessly drunk, passing out on the floor. The morning after they are met with the realisation that the rescue ship has not arrived, either because they had missed it in their drunken state, or because of the severity of the storm. The 'wickies' then face an uncertain and ultimately hallucinatory wait for recovery amidst dwindling supplies, Wake's continual goading of his co-worker, and Winslow's increasingly fragile mental state driven by the need to confront his past.

I've now seen The Lighthouse twice. On first view I confess that I didn't take to it. It's an unpleasant and cold film, its dialogue impenetrable and scenario bleak and unappealing (despite the stunning black and white photography from Jarin Blaschke, who was also responsible for the equally breathtaking work on Eggers's previous feature). The movie's tight box framing, pushing the unappealing characters of Winslow and Wake closely together, turn it into a sustained two-hander claustrophobic nightmare.

But viewed a second time it emerged as a much more powerful and human work, and strangely I found the elements that put me off the first time to be its strengths. Eggers surrounds his film in the vernacular of the time which gives the film a parabolic feel. The script, co-written with the director and his brother Max, borrows heavily from 19th century literature and other textual sources, including journals of lighthouse keepers, and with references to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, the albatross killing from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's epic 1798 poem 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' and the Greek myths of Proteus and Prometheus. The almost mythic mood of the film is enhanced by the strange jarring imagery of the piece, inspired by, amongst others, the Blake-influenced work of the early 20th century German painter Sacha Schneider, and the films of early expressionist directors.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are outstanding as the 'wikies'. Dafoe in particular, his face a creased map of grizzled experience, gives an extraordinarily physical performance, and it's a testament to both actors that, from their initial exposure to the camera at the beginning of the movie, where Wake and Winslow both face the audience as if posing for a photograph, as The Lighthouse progresses the two characters become increasingly alike in age and stature, and gradually merge with their surroundings. It's been reported that the whole shoot was extremely difficult, with a combination of elemental challenges and the actors' ability to cope both with those conditions and their own characters. The results of this are clearly apparent on screen, but that only adds to the intensity of the piece, backed by an incredible soundscape punctuated by moaning, echoing foghorns and Mark Korven's dramatic, menacing score.

Like Ari Aster, whose two movies, Hereditary and Midsommar, have established him as a fresh face on the horror scene, the still thirty-something Robert Eggars's second film is as mesmerising as his first, making him an equally important newcomer to the genre. The Lighthouse is certainly not an easy watch, but it's a fascinating one, and I'm really looking forward to see where he's going to go next.

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