'...And an Overtoppled Chair.'
As they say in Rome, 'After a fat Pope, a thin Pope' – another of those weeks where everyone in the film releasing business seems to be keeping their powder dry. Still, some intriguing prospects on the horizon, amongst them Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse, which gets a surprisingly wide UK release this weekend (we shall return to this topic). This is one of those movies I've heard various positive things about, not least from Ex-Next Desk Colleague (all things must pass). 'You'll love it,' was his confident assertion. Well, that's possibly putting it a bit too strong, but I am certainly very impressed.
The film takes place almost entirely on a remote and barren island, somewhere off the New England coast, many years ago. Posted here to maintain and operate the lighthouse are two men: one of them (Robert Pattinson) is on his first tour of duty as a lighthouse keeper – he is intense, quiet, eager to prove himself. The other man (Willem Dafoe) is much older and more experienced; he is also garrulous, demanding, and often crude. There is friction between the duo almost at once, not least because the old man will not allow his younger colleague into the lamp room, although he refuses to reveal why.
The time passes slowly. The younger man finds a carving of a mermaid left by one of the previous keepers. He also begins to have odd visions, amongst them ones of the older man getting up to very strange things in the lamp room after dark. As the days add up and the weather gets worse and worse, isolation takes its toll. But is it all in his head or is there some grotesque inhuman force really at work on the island?
It's honestly very difficult to give a proper impression of what The Lighthouse is really like to watch. The glib thing to say, which I'm not sure I didn't read somewhere else, is that it is rather like how Steptoe and Son might have turned out, had the series been written by H. P. Lovecraft: it has two men of different generations trapped together in a toxic, co-dependent relationship, but also an insidiously creepy atmosphere and the suggestion of something fishy going on between people and, well, fish (or other forms of marine life). I mean this as a compliment, by the way, but when you take two such distinctive flavours and blend them together, you're inevitably going to end up with something, um, distinctively distinctive.
Eggers, who wrote and directed the piece, doesn't seem at all cowed by this, and doing something a bit different seems to have been part of his intention. The movie is as stark and austere as only black-and-white can be – on top of this, the director has opted to use a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, giving it even more the look of a film from the earliest years of cinema. All of this would normally scream art-house darling, and I am honestly surprised it has managed to land a significant release in mainstream cinemas – but then again, I am probably underestimating the box-office clout of Robert Pattinson.
As with Kristen Stewart, I would suggest that the statute of limitations has expired and we accept that Pattinson is actually a very able actor and an impressive screen presence, regardless of how he started his career. Certainly he also seems happy to take on challenging projects – whatever else you think about it, the ickily pretentious sci-fi movie High Life from last year was hardly a commercial choice, and you could say the same about this one, too. Every genre movie that Pattinson signs on for seems to mutate into something unexpected and disturbing. Which inevitably leads one to wonder, now that Pattinson (or at least his chin) has signed up to play Batman: how on Earth is that going to work out?
This, of course, is a question for another day. Underneath the period trappings and strange stylistic quirks, The Lighthouse is at heart a horror movie, although saying much more about it is a little tricky. Certainly the most striking moments in it come from the suggestion that something genuinely unnatural and perhaps even mythic is going on: this is one of those movies where not a great deal is explained, but it does seem to be loaded with moments alluding to Greek myth and classic literature. Pattinson has visions of a mermaid, for one thing, while those looking to make the Lovecraft connection will find the appearance of tentacles in unlikely places to be of great significance.
On the other hand, it could just all be symptomatic of creeping madness brought on by a combination of factors: isolation, stress, perhaps also guilt. I have to reiterate just how atmospheric The Lighthouse is: a foghorn bleats repetitively on the soundtrack, adding to the sounds of the elements, while you are left with no doubts as to just how bleak and unpleasant the island the keepers are on is. Apparently the cast and crew had a fairly wretched time just making the movie there – I suspect there was not a lot of acting required for many of the scenes.
When the acting is required, however, both Pattinson and Defoe certainly do the business. I suppose we can say that both of them deliver bold, vanity-free performances. Pattinson is playing the point-of-identification character, to begin with at least, but as the film goes on introduces elements of mania into his character quite cleverly and subtly: he goes from being sympathetic to rather alarming almost seamlessly. It initially looks like Defoe has been given quite a ripe old character part, complete with beard and thick accent, but the actor manages to find depth and reality as well, while retaining the edge of ambiguity that the film really requires in order to work. And work it does.
Of course, the thing about The Lighthouse, being a film about madness (and often violent madness at that) is that it does end up being an unreliable narrative. The story comes unglued just as the characters do, and in the end it's left up to the viewer to work out just what has really been going on in front of them. But the film is impressive and memorable enough for this to be a welcome challenge rather than a chore. This is a movie with some extreme moments, and it certainly won't be to all tastes, but I found its ambition and focus to be highly laudable. A good omen for the year's horror movies.