Imagine waiting in an endless line behind two guys who smell like cigarettes and BO to see a new Anish Kapoor sculpture that turns out to be a giant light bulb. The artist provides no explanation, assigns no purpose or meaning to the work. It’s simply something he has deemed Art, and you like it or you don’t get it.
You have to really, really, reeeeeealy like Art to make it through The Lighthouse.
It does, aesthetically at least, fit the definition. It’s shot in black&white and shown in a square format. Every single scene looks like it could be framed and hung in a Palo Alto condo. In fact, you get the sense that this director sold the movie by taking a bunch of great stills and then letting everyone play with them like refrigerator magnet poetry.
Here’s the set-up: Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe have to live in tight quarters while they watch over a lighthouse on a tiny, isolated island. They’re supposed to be grizzled and haggard, but Dafoe’s character keeps pointing out how Pattinson’s character is too pretty for his job, and we wonder why this never crossed the director’s mind. So while Dafoe is as natural to the film’s setting as the barnacles and seaweed and raggety gulls, the movie has to keep finding ways to dirty up Pattinson, and nothing sticks, including his accent.
Dafoe is named Thomas and is a dick to Pattinson’s Ephraim, who is made to do all the shit work (literally) while Thomas gets the easy job of baby-sitting the lighthouse beacon. Thomas is driving Ephraim mad with his farting and spitting and snoring and talking in a ridiculous ‘aar-ye-mateys’ accent, all of which is supposed to be funny, maybe, but seems more like a way to give the director an out when people call the movie silly. I won’t even get into how a movie that has gobs of Thomas’ cum dripping through the floor onto Ephraim can later shy away from the pair kissing after a drunken slow-dance.
Like much of contemporary art, the narrative stridently refuses to follow any format, even in brief moments. It bounces around from satirical nods to its own silliness to sudden and disturbing violence to taking the gross-out factor to a place movies rarely go. It wants to be the Piss Christ of movies, but lacks such a clear cultural commentary. We don’t know what’s important to the plot or even if there is a plot, beyond two guys fighting for the chance to jack off in front of a lighthouse beacon.
Did Thomas just transform into a sea monster? Is that a tail we see under his longjohns? Is he gaslighting Ephraim? Is he in love with Ephraim? Did he kill their replacements to keep Ephraim there with him? Did he rape Ephraim? Did Ephraim rape him? Is Ephraim secretly a murderer on the lam? Do mermaids actually have labial folds? All of these questions are brought up and only that last one is answered (They do! And with this and The Shape of Water, we can finally put the whole ‘how do you fuck a merperson?’ question to rest.).
This director’s previous film, The VVitch, is also strikingly shot, but instead of this mess, it has a narrative as clean and direct as its Puritan setting, so the disturbing ending is earned. The witches are wanton and murderous, but it’s the cruelties perpetrated upon our young female protagonist by a blindly religious and patriarchal society that push her to embrace the coven.
Films don’t have to have big messages like female empowerment to resonate, but in The Lighthouse, all we’re given is some dom/sub teasing and Ephraim going nuts (or is he?), and with no other point, no other character to care about, it’s all just an exercise in torturing Robert Pattinson. And OK, Twilight was bad, but he doesn’t deserve this.
The Lighthouse is currently in theaters.
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