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The Lighthouse

Released 2019. Director: Robert Eggers

WHEN YOU KNOW WHAT YOU SEE ON SCREEN IS EXAGGERATED, when a situation is beyond the realm of logic and reason, there’s a perverse sense of fascination in seeing someone go bonkers in the movies. Especially when it’s borderline between serious thespian acting and bombastic hammy acting. When you know it’s not a true story, not a real person, a staged meltdown under these circumstances is all in the name of art and entertainment.

The Lighthouse is set in the 1890s off the coast of Maine where two men descend into madness, from a slow trickling of irrational behaviour to full-blown craziness that involves ropes, an axe, a lot of alcohol and a lot of blood. Willem Dafoe is lighthouse keeper Thomas who lords over his tiny outcrop with a tempestuous flourish. Robert Pattinson is apprentice keeper, also named Thomas, who resents being treated like a slave on this god-forsaken piece of rock. Not a buddy movie for sure.

Trapped on a little island doing the same thing day after day, the two men grate on each other from the start. They acquiesce on occasions, then mostly bark at each other, tolerating the confined arrangements until their shift is over in two weeks.

However, extreme weather means their replacements are not coming and they’re trapped for as long as it takes, who knows when. Now things are gonna get seriously unpleasant, to put it mildly.

The first thing you’ll notice watching The Lighthouse is its aspect ratio of almost a perfect square, as if you’re peering out of a window or a hole in the wall. The view is limited, the atmosphere is suffocating, and the sense of claustrophobia in the movie creeps up on you.

Jarin Blaschke’s black-and-white cinematography drenches the scenes with a thousand shades of grey. The interiors are never adequately lit, the exteriors are gloomy and the two men not only fight each other you feel they’re possessed by something murky in the shadows. The heaving sea and pounding waves, the foreboding sky weighing down on the craggy island, and one particular shot of Willem Dafoe’s stark raving mad expression are striking and indelible visuals.

Robert Eggers has followed up on The Witch (2015) with directing finesse, employing similar themes of isolation, fear and mystery. Only this time he’s shrunk the haunting into a tight space and thrown in hallucinations of sex with a mermaid and murderous seagulls. Lashed by crashing surf and never-ending whoosh of the Atlantic gale, this is a dark, dingy asylum you could smell the dank and funk of salt, body odour, excrement and decay.

The brutal end seems to suggest The Lighthouse as a case study of mental deterioration. Or a metaphor for a toxic workplace with no support for the psychologically fragile. Regardless, the two actors dive in with dedicated performances, waist-deep to out-intense each other without falling over into hysteria.

Willem Dafoe has rarely given a bad performance whether he’s playing a hero, villain or someone in between and this role of a pipe-chewing wickie is another feather in his cap. Not since Shadow of the Vampire (2000) has Dafoe unleashed his gift for terrorising with this much relish. As for Robert Pattinson, he keeps pursuing independent films and art-house projects after the success of the Twilight series, stretching and transforming himself to be taken seriously.

If you’re a fan of either of them, then you should find it interesting to see how they tackle male aggression blinded by their worst instincts in the shadow of a giant phallic symbol. A territorial pissing contest with no winner. As for Robert Eggers, judging by the only two movies he’s made so far, he’s a master conjurer of dark aura.


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