Monday, 7 October 2019

LFF 2019: The Lighthouse

A man takes a job maintaining an old building in a remote, isolated location in order to get away from his past. One of his predecessors, he discovers, went mad and killed himself. Human company is extremely limited and generally annoying. While there, he begins to lose his mind; nightmares seep into waking life until he isn't sure what's real any more. At some point, someone is chased by a limping crackpot wielding a massive axe. Welcome to The Lighthouse, the movie that could have legitimately been called 'The Shining' after more than just its titular glorified lightbulb.

OK, that's probably a little unfair: The Lighthouse is very much its own thing. In fact it's unforgettably unique, looking and sounding like something dredged from the depths of an aged sailor's worst memories. The monochrome photography is gorgeous, and the 1.19:1 aspect ratio ramps up the claustrophobia faced by the characters in their tiny corner of the world. While it's a visual and aural wonder, though, it left me pretty much unmoved, which is why my mind kept wandering off to the Overlook Hotel, as well as to the Bodega Bay of The Birds, thanks to some (admittedly excellent) seagull-based antagonism.
It's the late 19th century, somewhere on America's northeastern coast. Robert Pattinson is Ephraim Winslow, the reluctant lighthouse keeper's assistant; Willem Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, the grizzly, amusingly flatulent "wickie" - the guy responsible for looking after the light - for whom the term "salty sea-dog" seems to have been invented. While Wake fiercely guards his glowing mistress, Winslow is left with the menial, literally shitty jobs, and dreams of sexy, scary mermaids. Ostensibly there on a four-week stint, the two men bicker, fight, become pals, get drunk, argue a bit more, drink a lot more and then everything goes completely batshit crazy and you'd better be ready for it.

Director Robert Eggers piles on the menace with his mise en scene: the light station feels like a living thing whose eternal clanking and honking competes with Mark Korven's buzzing, droning score to see which can keep you the most unsettled. The mood is occasionally lightened by Wake's voluble anus or the pesky gulls said to harbour the spirits of sailors taken by the sea, but by and large this is a doom-laden psychodrama in which nothing can be taken at face value and which is destined to inspire any number of interpretations. (The final shot offers some clue as to where Eggers might be coming from, especially in conjunction with one of equally numerous readings of the aforementioned Kubrickian horror.)
But while certain images and sounds will stay with me for some time (again, Farty Bill leaves his mark), I was never as transported, freaked out or even interested as I felt the film wanted me to be. Like Eggers' The Witch before it, The Lighthouse has some memorable elements, but generally feels too unfocused to truly resonate. Its repetitive nature is necessary but a little wearing, and a lot of the exposition gets lost in Willem Dafoe's beard before it makes it out of the speakers. Full marks for audio-visual assault and battery but I'm afraid for me, lighthouse-based mentalism peaked with Round The Twist.

1 comment :

  1. You had me at "The Witch" (which is very late, but hey at least!)