Max Eggers, Robert Eggers
Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman
R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language.
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
Martin Scorsese may have stepped in a mess when he derided the Marvel Cinematic Universe as artless, but independent cinemas are still filled with talented directors trying to reshape the way movies are experienced. The Lighthouse is as close to a French New Wave exploration of theme and image as any other film in recent memory and it’s both the type of film Scorsese is talking about as well as the kind of film he could never make.
The biggest issue with statements like Scorsese’s and other directors who came out in support of him is that movies began as a form of entertainment. While various directors like Georges Méliès began shaping cinematic art as we know it today, the vast majority of the output in the silent era was intended for mass audiences to make them laugh, sigh, and cry. While each new generation of filmmakers has a handful who refine and expand on what it means to create cinema, the medium has always been, first and foremost, designed for widespread enjoyment.
Director Robert Eggers very much intends to follow in the footsteps of cinematic pioneers like the masters of the French New Wave and Italian Neorelism among other artistic movements in film. Jean-Luc Godard. Federico Fellini. Ingmar Bergman. These are names Eggers is very clearly influenced by and The Lighthouse seems to have as much in common with Godard as Scorsese does with Steven Spielberg.
The plot of The Lighthouse isn’t easy to explain because there isn’t much of one there. The central premise is that of two lighthouse keepers (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) who must endure the cramped confines of a lighthouse and its attached buildings on an island off the coast of New England. While there, the younger (Pattinson) wickie, a term used for the men who tended lighthouses in that period, must constantly acquiesce to the elder (Dafoe) in an effort to maintain the peace. As the isolation begins to seep into their minds, they begin a more outward battle for dominance.
The film can be broken down into the great and the mediocre. Starting with the great, we have foremost Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography. His black-and-white photography is crisp and haunting. The use of light and shadow plays well into the film’s concept. Further, returning to a long out of use aspect ratio puts us squarely in the past even if it limits the amount of space the director has to work with. Craig Lathrop’s production design creates a place and setting for the film’s creepy realism. The performances of stars Pattinson and Dafoe are mesmerizing, taking the audience from veiled hostility to crazed conflict over the course of the film. Everyone knew Dafoe had that kind of creative energy within him, but Pattinson has been trying to prove he’s more than just that vampire kid and if this doesn’t put that notion to rest, then nothing ever will.
Then there’s the not-so-great. Eggars, along with his brother Max, have crafted a screenplay that struggles to define itself. As a thought exercise, that’s an exciting prospect, but for a cinematic experience, it’s utterly aggravating. Trying to understand a film and its nuances along with its emotional and philosophical stances can be challenging, but it shouldn’t desperately try to defy understanding entirely. The pacing is slow at times and doesn’t entirely make sense, leaving the audience to squirm not solely from the images and situations they see, but from the tedium these long sequences engender.
While there are elements of the film that suggest that this is a chance for both character to explore their past indelicacies, those flaws don’t evoke themselves terribly well. Perhaps guilt has a major impact on the proceedings, but is there some other premise at work here? Could the two be trapped in purgatory, ferried to the island of the damned, unable to leave and slowly driven mad by their fallibility?
The closing scene would support that latter concept, looking like a painting from some Renaissance master. Yet, there are still questions to be answered, and, over time, viewers may better understand them, but it’s this confusion combined with the overbearing languidness of the film itself that inhibits the audience’s ability to reach an immediate and informed conclusion, even days after seeing the film.
The Lighthouse is perhaps the kind of movie Scorsese was talking about when referring to cinema as being something more than special effects and action sequences, but you would be hard-pressed to find those who like both types of films in equal measure. Like music, painting, and other forms of artistic expression, excluding the popular from the pensive is unwise. Just like millions enjoy the content of the MCU, there are plenty of others who respect the artistic merits of cinema like this. Scorsese might not be one who can appreciate both, but there will be plenty who do and those are the individuals that help perpetuate both types of filmmaking and, without them, a film like The Lighthouse could never get made.
Potentials: Supporting Actor (Willem Dafoe), Cinematography
Unlikelies: Directing, Actor (Robert Pattinson), Original Screenplay
December 27, 2019