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Fiend-ers Keepers

Isolation turns horrific—and also crudely funny—in The Lighthouse. Lighthouse

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A24 FILMS
  • A24 Films
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You might have seen movies before with some of the same visual artistic ambition as The Lighthouse—a movie that plays with your sense of reality, or captures its characters in forbidding black-and-white cinematography. But chances are you haven't seen an artistically ambitious movie of this kind that includes quite as much farting, pissing and masturbating.

Co-writer/director Robert Eggers made his feature debut with the Sundance 2015 entry The Witch, and in a way, you could see The Lighthouse as a companion piece: A period piece where the horror is built on isolation from civilization, and the unsettling power of myths and stories to affect our perceptions. There's also a weird vein of dark humor running through this one, however, which helps make up for the fact that its thematic undercurrents feel fuzzier and less potent. If you've got an appetite for weirdness, there's a whole lot of it on The Lighthouse's menu.

The setting is a nonspecific late-19th century date, on an island near the U.S. East Coast, where we begin with a changing of the guard at the remote island's lighthouse. Lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and his new assistant, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrive for a scheduled four-week shift caring for the lighthouse and its surrounding buildings, though Wake is strangely protective of his role as the only one allowed to go to the room with the actual light. That leaves Winslow to a lot of physical labor, and a contentious relationship with Wake that compounds Winslow's sense of isolation, and which only grows more strained when a heavy storm threatens to extend their stay.

What follows offers a lot of parallels to The Shining, with its tale of a caretaker at a remote building slowly descending into madness, and ultimately wielding an axe; like my colleague Justin Chang, I thought of this seawater-soaked variation as The Brining. Every component of the physical production builds on the sense of simmering menace and claustrophobia, from the choice to pinch the characters into the boxy frame of Academy ratio, to the evocative lighting in Jarin Blaschke's black-and-white images, to the sound design that combines Mark Korven's eerie score with foghorn blasts that sound like a kaiju's roar. Eggers demonstrated in The Witch that he has a unique gift for augmenting tension with his visual and sound choices, and The Lighthouse feels like a horror movie long before events get obviously horrific.

The weird counterpoint to that atmosphere of dread comes from the two central performances—for all practical purposes the only two performances—and the bizarre relationship between the two characters. It's not just the crude humor that Eggers and his co-writer, his brother Max, build into the premise, including Wake's frequent bouts of flatulence and a less-than-successful attempt to empty chamber pots. There's an obvious tension between Wake and Winslow in terms of their respective histories—the former a career mariner full of superstitions, the latter an itinerant worker with no patience for his boss' militaristic manner—but those tensions are frequently defused in bizarre, even silly ways. For a story about the psychological perils of loneliness, it makes sense that these two men both hate one another and come to need one another.

There's also plenty of other ... stuff, for lack of any more precise word, going on. And it's here that any attempt to parse The Lighthouse gets complicated to the point of wanting to throw your hands up in frustration. The guy who also made The Witch clearly loves the idea of whether the things we fear from religion, legend and folk myth are real, and he certainly has no compunction about throwing into a storm-tossed blender everything from seafarers' tales of mermaids to the legend of Prometheus. If you're a movie-goer who needs "what happened" to be obvious once the closing credits roll, you might be in the wrong theater.

Of course, there can be more to "what happened" than a literal interpretation of plot elements. The Lighthouse proves to be weirdly entertaining and artistically fascinating, even if Eggers' underlying ideas are less resonant and more diffuse than they were in The Witch. There's creepy, complex, gothic horror, and then there's creepy, complex, gothic horror where a guy gets a faceful of his own crap.

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