Skip to main content

Bad luck to kill a seabird.

The Lighthouse
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Robert Eggers’ acclaimed – and Oscar-nominated – second feature is, in some respects, a similar beast to his previous The Witch, whereby isolated individuals of bygone eras are subjected to the unsparing attentions of nature. In his scheme of things, nature becomes an active, embodied force, one that has no respect for the line between imaginings and reality and which proceeds to test its targets’ sanity by means of both elements and elementals. All helped along by unhealthy doses of superstition. But where The Witch sustained itself, and the gradual unravelling of the family unit led to a germane climax, The Lighthouse becomes, well, rather silly.

Is that a somewhat glib verdict? I don’t think so. As noted, Eggers (with his brother Robert sharing screenplay duties) is venturing back into the territory of the mind overwhelmed by the natural world, with all the evils, fantasies and unchecked emotions that can be set loose in the absence of civilisation to distract or suppress it. But The Lighthouse’s framework authorises too much unearned escalation into unhinged states too soon, and without enough consistency to be convincing.

Ephraim Winslow/Thomas Howard (Robert Pattison) doesn’t drink a drop of spirits for his first four weeks on the rock, but very soon during that time he’s hallucinating visions of enticing mermaids. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is already on the antic side, a (highly enjoyable) caricature of the salty old seadog complete with gammy leg, who strips off in the lightroom – which he exclusively occupies as his own ("Take your duties. The light is mine") – as if he’s experiencing a nightly rite of religious ecstasy (complete with ejaculate). But he’s just crusty, not kill happy.

Essentially, the insanity that takes a hold – essentially of Howard – is insufficiently motivated. Eggers creates a great visual sense, with the black and white, 1:19:1, 35mm frame, but he fails to muster the claustrophobic encroachment on the mind that gripped Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, or even the pervasive, creeping paranoia of his previous film. Howard flips back and forth, once he is storm stranded, between getting pissed out of his gourd and performing the mundane menial chores. His state isn’t sustained, so his breaking point doesn’t convince when it comes.

At which point, The Lighthouse leaps off the deep end, with Howard’s confused perspective fracturing the timeframe and causing the confusion of little details such as who’s doing what to whom (Wake claims weeks have passed, and tells Howard the axe attack on the boat by the elder keeper actually occurred the other way round). All culminating in Wake on a leash, buried alive – before returning for some gratuitous violence – and Howard finally venturing up to the lightroom as if re-enacting Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. But that isn’t quite the end of it: he takes a tumble, and is finished off by gulls risibly pecking him to bits. I mean, it’s very silly, isn’t it?

I was put in mind of Midsommar several times, where a lot of good work is done in establishing mood and aesthetic sense, but the filmmaker ultimately appears exhausted of inspiration for how to bring matters to a satisfying head. And so he proceeds incautiously; so much easier just to get very messy. There’s a point where The Lighthouse’s perpetual, storm-tossed drunken abandon begins to test the patience, and it’s the sure sign of desperation that Eggers reroutes his existential character study into full-blown art gore.

There’s also that the director, despite his keen visual instincts, falls back on geek-pleasing standard visual tropes – tentacle monsters, seductive sirens, the admittedly perfectly-captured Dafoe as Triton – so doubling down on the sense that, despite the laudable focus on two actors, The Lighthouse is almost all about the visuals and the authenticity of setting rather than the content.

I’d suggest the atmosphere is a major achievement, except that I think Eggers fails to imbue the piece with a real sense of madness borne of isolation, or even a proper sense of setting (we have no idea of the isle’s geography, and surely the first thing Howard would do would be to explore it). Eggers relishes the dirt, filth, depravity, the lack of hygiene, the farting, the wanking, the excrement (full in the face), the cold and the damp, the storms and desolation of the spot, but none of this actually amounts to very much. This most certainly isn’t a haunting tale, one that stays with you. It is, despite its palate, garish and grotesque, too large and lurid and obsessed with its viscera to be affecting or convincing. When its protagonists descend into drinking turps, I was put more in mind of The Goodies (who also made a memorable lighthouse episode, Lighthouse Keeping Loonies), than anything dramatically cogent.

Then there are the characters. Dafoe’s great – he always is – as the sometimes-incomprehensible Wake, mighty of beard and given to voicing his myriad superstitions, curses and tall tales. He also delivers the overwhelming majority of the picture’s laughs. But Wake isn’t allowed a soul; he’s much too much a reflection of Howard’s impression of him, his fear, hatred and, to some extent, awe. And Pattison is reliable in his sullen intensity as Howard, but Howard only really engages as a character when he’s the subject of Wake’s tyranny. He isn’t interesting, even when he’s revealing his dark secrets. There’s an extent to which this is germane – Wake mocks Howard for being nothing special, for being just like anyone else feeling life owes them something – but it makes the lurch into more extreme territory in the final twenty minutes banal, for all its intensity. Indeed, the reverse dynamic reveal borders on, dare I say it, trite.

There are elements here, the brooding paranoia, the sexual undercurrents and over-currents felt by the men – in response to the environment (events go south, via the onset of the storm, after Howard kills a seagull in a frenzied rage), directed at each other, fantasised mermaids or an all-consuming lifeforce (or lightforce), the anarchic abandon that comes with intoxication – that Eggers handles extremely deftly. And he’s an expert at suggesting man’s fragility in the face of nature and myth. Plus, his depiction of insane seagulls is every bit as memorable as his goat in The Witch. And yet, The Lighthouse is a film that only seems to be saying a lot, until it boils down to saying very little.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Who’s got the Figgy Port?

Loki (2021) (SPOILERS) Can something be of redeemable value and shot through with woke (the answer is: Mad Max: Fury Road )? The two attributes certainly sound essentially irreconcilable, and Loki ’s tendencies – obviously, with new improved super-progressive Kevin Feige touting Disney’s uber-agenda – undeniably get in the way of what might have been a top-tier MCU entry from realising its full potential. But there are nevertheless solid bursts of highly engaging storytelling in the mix here, for all its less cherishable motivations. It also boasts an effortlessly commanding lead performance from Tom Hiddleston; that alone puts Loki head and shoulders above the other limited series thus far.

Here’s Bloody Justice for you.

Laughter in Paradise (1951) (SPOILERS) The beginning of a comedic run for director-producer Mario Zampa that spanned much of the 1950s, invariably aided by writers Michael Pertwee and Jack Davies (the latter went on to pen a spate of Norman Wisdom pictures including The Early Bird , and also comedy rally classic Monte Carlo or Bust! ) As usual with these Pertwee jaunts, Laughter in Paradise boasts a sparky premise – renowned practical joker bequeaths a fortune to four relatives, on condition they complete selected tasks that tickle him – and more than enough resultant situational humour.

Damn prairie dog burrow!

Tremors (1990) (SPOILERS) I suspect the reason the horror comedy – or the sci-fi comedy, come to that – doesn’t tend to be the slam-dunk goldmine many assume it must be, is because it takes a certain sensibility to do it right. Everyone isn’t a Joe Dante or Sam Raimi, or a John Landis, John Carpenter, Edgar Wright, Christopher Landon or even a Peter Jackson or Tim Burton, and the genre is littered with financial failures, some of them very good failures (and a good number of them from the names mentioned). Tremors was one, only proving a hit on video (hence six sequels at last count). It also failed to make Ron Underwood a directing legend.

You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 (2012) The final finale of the Twilight saga, in which pig-boy Jacob tells Bella that, “No, it's not like that at all!” after she accuses him of being a paedo. But then she comes around to his viewpoint, doubtless displaying the kind of denial many parents did who let their kids spend time with Jimmy Savile or Gary Glitter during the ‘70s. It's lucky little Renesmee will be an adult by the age of seven, right? Right... Jacob even jokes that he should start calling Edward, “Dad”. And all the while they smile and smile.

I’m just glad Will Smith isn’t alive to see this.

The Tomorrow War (2021) (SPOILERS). Not so much tomorrow as yesterday. There’s a strong sense of déjà vu watching The Tomorrow War , so doggedly derivative is it of every time-travel/alien war/apocalyptic sci-fi movie of the past forty years. Not helping it stand out from the pack are doughy lead Chris Pratt, damned to look forever on the beefy side no matter how ripped he is and lacking the chops or gravitas for straight roles, and debut live-action director Chris McKay, who manages to deliver the goods in a serviceably anonymous fashion.

Why don't we go on a picnic, up the hill?

Invaders from Mars (1986) (SPOILERS) One can wax thematical over the number of remakes of ’50s movies in the ’80s – and ’50s SF movies in particular – and of how they represent ever-present Cold War and nuclear threats, and steadily increasing social and familial paranoias and disintegrating values. Really, though, it’s mostly down to the nostalgia of filmmakers for whom such pictures were formative influences (and studios hoping to make an easy buck on a library property). Tobe Hooper’s version of nostalgia, however, is not so readily discernible as a John Carpenter or a David Cronenberg (not that Cronenberg could foment such vibes, any more than a trip to the dental hygienist). Because his directorial qualities are not so readily discernible. Tobe Hooper movies tend to be a bit shit. Which makes it unsurprising that Invaders from Mars is a bit shit.

What's a movie star need a rocket for anyway?

The Rocketeer (1991) (SPOILERS) The Rocketeer has a fantastic poster. One of the best of the last thirty years (and while that may seem like faint praise, what with poster design being a dying art – I’m looking at you Marvel, or Amazon and the recent The Tomorrow War – it isn’t meant to be). The movie itself, however, tends towards stodge. Unremarkable pictures with a wide/cult fanbase, conditioned by childhood nostalgia, are ten-a-penny – Willow for example – and in this case, there was also a reasonably warm critical reception. But such an embrace can’t alter that Joe Johnston makes an inveterately bland, tepid movie director. His “feel” for period here got him The First Avenger: Captain America gig, a bland, tepid movie tending towards stodge. So at least he’s consistent.

I'm offering you a half-share in the universe.

Doctor Who Season 8 – Worst to Best I’m not sure I’d watched Season Eight chronologically before. While I have no hesitation in placing it as the second-best Pertwee season, based on its stories, I’m not sure it pays the same dividends watched as a unit. Simply, there’s too much Master, even as Roger Delgado never gets boring to watch and the stories themselves offer sufficient variety. His presence, turning up like clockwork, is inevitably repetitive. There were no particular revelatory reassessments resulting from this visit, then, except that, taken together – and as The Directing Route extra on the Blu-ray set highlights – it’s often much more visually inventive than what would follow. And that Michael Ferguson should probably have been on permanent attachment throughout this era.

As in the hokey kids’ show guy?

A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t think Mr Rogers could have been any creepier had Kevin Spacey played him. It isn’t just the baggage Tom Hanks brings, and whether or not he’s the adrenochrome lord to the stars and/or in Guantanamo and/or dead and/or going to make a perfectly dreadful Colonel Tom Parker and an equally awful Geppetto; it’s that his performance is so constipated and mannered an imitation of Mr Rogers’ genuineness that this “biopic” takes on a fundamentally sinister turn. His every scene with a youngster isn’t so much exuding benevolent empathy as suggestive of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ’s Child Catcher let loose in a TV studio (and again, this bodes well for Geppetto). Extend that to A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood ’s conceit, that Mr Rogers’ life is one of a sociopathic shrink milking angst from his victims/patients in order to get some kind of satiating high – a bit like a rejuvenating drug, on that score – and you have a deeply unsettli

Somewhere out there is a lady who I think will never be a nun.

The Sound of Music (1965) (SPOILERS) One of the most successful movies ever made – and the most successful musical – The Sound of Music has earned probably quite enough unfiltered adulation over the years to drown out the dissenting voices, those that denounce it as an inveterately saccharine, hollow confection warranting no truck. It’s certainly true that there are impossibly nice and wholesome elements here, from Julie Andrews’ career-dooming stereotype governess to the seven sonorous children more than willing to dress up in old curtains and join her gallivanting troupe. Whether the consequence is something insidious in its infectious spirit is debatable, but I’ll admit that it manages to ensnare me. I don’t think I’d seen the movie in its entirety since I was a kid, and maybe that formativeness is a key brainwashing facet of its appeal, but it retains its essential lustre just the same.