Robert Eggers’ previous movie, The Witch, was celebrated as a genre subversion. Touted as a horror film, it appropriated archaic speech directly from the source and grounded its terrors in experiences that only the truly God-fearing can suffer in order to tell the story of a doomed Puritan family who attempt to live outside their colony in 17th century New England. Its frights were existential even if its plot relied on familiarity with the occult. Eggers’ followup is another historical curiosity whose genre bona fides are harder to determine. As with The Witch, the dialogue avoids anything that smacks of modern speech, but the effect is more ridiculous. At times, it feels like an SNL parody of the kind of movie it aspires to be.
The year is 1890. Robert Pattinson plays Ephraim Winslow, a recently recruited lighthouse keeper who is assuming his first position as apprentice to the gruff veteran “wickie” Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) on a tiny island off the New England coast. The two men will be stuck together for four weeks as Winslow learns the ropes, so to speak, and the dynamic between the two quickly descends into that of master-slave. “The light is mine,” Wake keeps saying through teeth clenched on his clay pipe, reserving the actual operation of the lamp for himself, while assigning Winslow the back-breaking labor of carrying fuel, shifting supplies, and digging holes for sundry purposes, some of which are pretty disgusting. Even more ominous, Wake runs things by his own rules, which differ from the regulations implemented by their employer. Winslow resists, refusing to drink with Wake and listen to his bullshit stories of when he was a sea captain. Their relationship deteriorates quickly as both men descend into what seems to be individual states of madness that involve sexual fantasies and death-obsessed hallucinations.
The usual problem with this kind of horror movie is that the audience is stuck with these two guys as well, and what for them is abject misery transfers to the viewer as mostly frustration, but Eggers understands this, which is where the black humor comes in. Some scenes, like the one where Winslow overdoes the killing of a pesky seagull, will likely offend certain sensibilities, but many of the running jokes — Wake’s gleeful, provoking flatulence; Winslow’s spiteful horniness — work well in propelling the somewhat thin storyline to ever greater heights of absurdity. The fact that the story does pay off with something thematically meatier than you expect is only gravy, and while The Lighthouse doesn’t qualify as a work of transcendent art, it turns out to be a truly ripping yarn, which is probably the genre Eggers was looking to lampoon.
Opens July 9 in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225).
The Lighthouse home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2019 A24 Films LLC