It’s the late 1890s, and Ephraim (Robert Pattinson) is signing up for a one-month gig assisting at the titular (cockular?) lighthouse. Boss of the operation Tom (Willem Dafoe) is a cranky former seaman who’s jealously protective of the light tower. When they’re trapped together by a storm long after Ephraim’s stint is supposed to be over (or not?), rations run low, tempers flare, and the two go mad in spectacular fashion.
As I was watching, I thought to myself that a lot of people are going to hate it. It’s written by Robert and Max Eggers, who did The Witch, a challenging and sometimes loathed film. (I liked it. You can read my review of it here. Like The Witch, it’s a fairly slow burn; much screentime is devoted to showing how repetitious the job is. You can summarize the first half of the movie thusly: Ephraim drags heavy stuff around all day, masturbates. They eat dinner, with Tom insisting on the same toast every night. Tom drinks, passes gas, gets naked on the top floor of the lighthouse. Also, it’s artsy (fartsy, in the case of Tom). For starters, it’s in black and white. There are some scenes that are just plumb off-putting, like Ephraim’s vision of a nude Tom shooting lasers out of his eyes. Or the scene when Ephraim thinks he’s banging a mermaid, but then she suddenly becomes Tom dressed as Neptune–complete with tentacles.
As I was leaving the theatre, I heard someone remark sarcastically, “You’re welcome for me making you go!”
I read on Wikipedia (my go-to for plot summaries to make sure I didn’t miss or misunderstand something) that the critics at Cannes loved it, in particular the cinematography. Eggers used cameras and lenses meant to evoke old-timey photography (thank you, IMDb, my go-to for movie trivia), and the scenery is just gorgeous, especially Robert Pattinson’s ass–sorry, I meant the mermaid boobs–ahem, the ocean. Critics also loved the performances. Actually, both Pattinson and Dafoe are hitting up the Oscars for Best Actor (Pattinson) and Best Supporting Actor (Dafoe). I was blown away. Dafoe is of course a seasoned professional. I was awed by his soliloquy about how Neptune is going to strike Ephraim down, and also the scene when Ephraim throws him in a hole and starts shoveling dirt on him. Tom is ranting the entire time, and he gets a remarkable amount of dirt in his mouth. And he just eats it and keeps talking. (Dafoe also learned to knit for a scene showing him knitting for maybe a minute.) I knew from Little Ashes (and from never having seen a Twilight movie) that Pattinson has serious acting chops, but he shows here that he’s not afraid to look grizzled, have a mustache full of puke (hopefully fake, but he’s a pretty serious method actor), and slow-dance with Willem Dafoe.
The filmmakers do an excellent job of building tension and creepiness. The score is very primal, with its thumps and whines. Composer Mark Corven used a number of exotic instruments to evoke the sea, including a glass harmonica and a waterphone, as well the technique of friction rubs (even the soundtrack is full of friction!). The ambient sounds, like the foghorn, the whistling wind, and crashing gears, work well to build up the tension. Sometimes the sounds are so loud they’re actually painful. In one scene there’s sudden silence, and I was relieved. The lighthouse set is small, and the shots are tight, often close-ups or medium shots at the most, so the sense of being trapped builds up. The two men share a single (tiny) bedroom. There’s not much of a distinct sense of time. Without much indication to the audience, two weeks have passed. Tom is unreliable, telling Ephraim that he’d been there for much longer than a month. Tom lies, and Ephraim hallucinates, so neither of them are reliable. We hear at the beginning that Tom’s last second in command died, suffering from “doldrums,” thinking he saw mermaids and that the lighthouse was enchanted. Ephraim is not well, and we’re stuck with his perspective, hallucinating along with him. What seems to be reality in the movie is always shifting. The mens’ mental health is symbolized both by the sea, which goes from calm to roiling, and by the state of the lighthouse, which starts off tidy and clean, but when the sea bursts in, becomes flooded and nigh unlivable. By that point, neither man is cleaning; in fact, Ephraim attempts to empty his bladder in a chamber pot floating on the ocean water, misses, then falls in the urine/water and throws up.
Gender is a topic of interest in the movie. Eggers is repeatedly quoted to have said regarding his characters, “Nothing good can happen when two men are trapped alone in a giant phallus.” Indeed, there is a battle for dominance right after Ephraim sets foot in the door. Tom treats him as a subordinate, making him respond to commands with “Aye, sir,” and criticizes his cleaning skills, making him swab a floor twelve times. He also forbids Ephraim from touching the light tower or even going on that level of the lighthouse (despite Ephraim’s manual stating that both wickies tend to it). (So Ephraim respects his wishes and puts it out of his mind. Kidding! Of course he spends much of the movie trying to figure out what’s so great up there, and before long, so are we.) The upper hand is consistently changing. Tom is in charge, but he performs a lot of traditionally feminine habits like knitting, cooking, (nagging) in the traditionally feminine space–indoors. Meanwhile, Tom does all the hard labor outside (the traditional masculine space). During a bout of drunken cuddling, Tom rests his head on Ephraim’s chest. Tom’s shorter, older, and an old leg injury makes him physically weaker.
The Eggers brothers (and crew, of course) did a massive amount of research to correctly capture the time period. For example, poring over books on seaman slang like, “Well, I’ll be scuppered”. Even the accents–Tom the salty sea dog and Ephraim the Maine native–are painstakingly precise. (When Ephraim hollers at Tom that he hates his flatulence, it comes across as “Goddamn ya faaahhhts!”) Even the lenses on the lighthouse and the use of kerosene lamps to light the set are historically accurate. (Both the tone and the lighting are quite gloomy–in the photo of Pattinson following the third paragraph, that’s not a poor-quality movie still–that’s how dimly lit the shot actually is.) Another antique aspect of the movie is when Ephraim kills a seagull that annoys him. In the sixteenth century poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the narrator kills an albatross out of meanness while at sea, which causes the breeze to die and leave him and the rest of the crew stranded. In the movie, right after the seagull dies, the wind changes and the storm comes. (A slightly newer homage comes in a later scene, when a la Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Tom chases Ephraim with an axe, limping and screaming unintelligibly.)
There are unexpected moments of humor–and not humorous like a talking goat. In one scene, Ephraim drunkenly muses that he’d like some beef: “If I had a steak, I’d fuck it.” Tom replies, “You don’t like me cookin’?” This is moments before Ephraim launches into his Neptune speech and ends with Ephraim, unruffled, stating, “All right, have it your way. I like your cookin’.” Overall, I liked it. I actually couldn’t think of any gripes. Give it a look if you’re in the mood for something thought-provoking and mysterious.