The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse ★★★★

"Boredom makes men to villains... the only med'cine is drink." ~ Thomas Wake

Here's the production debut of sophomore director Robert Eggers ("The VVitch," 2015), who also served as co-writer of the screenplay with his brother Max Eggers. To achieve an authentic late 19th century New England look, the film was shot in B&W by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke on location at Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Fog greets two "wickies" (lighthouse keepers) as they arrive on an isolated island for their four-week assignment. Accommodations are Spartan and he work unending, from stoking the coal furnace that powers the mechanism to rotates the light to cooking meals, polishing brass, cleaning glass, repairing plumbing, mending the roof, and recording all tasks accomplished in a daily log.

Bearded, game-legged Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is the elder and more experienced of the two and in charge of all aspects of keeping the light. He's a former sailor whose bad leg has driven him from the sea to a life on land. His assistant is a newcomer named Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), whose knowledge of being a wickie comes from reading a July 1881 book called "Introduction to Light Keeping." He's a drifter, who floated into this job for the money he might save toward establishing a future home of his own.

Wake makes it clear from the start that he is in charge, taking the night shift and full responsibility for tending the great lamp in the tower. Privately, Wake has an almost erotic obsession with the constant revolving light. At night alone, he takes off his clothes and bathes in the beauty of its rays. He talks to the light like his lover, too, a craziness he masks from everyone.

Meanwhile, Winslow is having difficulty adjusting to isolation. He works, he reads, he smokes, he masturbates while gazing at a small, bare-breasted mermaid token he found, but he refuses to drink, which angers Wake, who finds company in the bottle. And Wake also finds comfort in bullying Winslow to perform menial housekeeping tasks, sometimes over and over, just because he's in charge and controls the younger man's wages.

What's more the seagulls seem to have it in for Winslow, too, taunting and sometimes attacking him like harpies. Perhaps they sense he is hiding a dark secret, running from something horrible. According to Wake, the gulls hold the souls of departed seamen. They must be respected and never killed, which would bring bad luck. But after a couple of weeks, Winslow can't stand the birds bothering him and, ignoring the myths, he kills one with his bare hands, bashing it against the metal frame of the cistern.

As if in reaction to this act, on the last day of the men's four-week assignment, the wind changes direction, threatening a mighty storm. But the two wickies want to celebrate the end of their term. They pull up a lobster trap for their last supper, and Wake convinces Winslow to drink with him. The men seem to bond a little, although Wake gets his back up when Winslow complains of not having a chance to tend the light.

Rain comes the day they are scheduled to depart. While wearing his slicker and carting coal in a wheelbarrow, Winslow comes upon a naked mermaid buried in flotsam and kelp. He tries to revive her and she begins crying out like an angry gull. Hallucination? By evening, no relief crew has arrived; no fresh provisions have been delivered. With the storm rapidly gaining force, Wake says it could be weeks or even months before the tender comes. They need to wait out the storm, and ration their provisions. Then, Wake has Winslow dig up a hidden crate of rum to help them endure the waiting. Bad, bad idea.

At times the low lighting and tightly enclosed, isolated living quarters reminded me of the shack-like home and repetitive daily lives of the horse-owner and his daughter in Bella Tarr's "The Turin Horse" (2011). I was also reminded of the hardship depicted in Erica Fae's tale of a lighthouse keeper's wife in "To Keep the Light" (2016). This compares well with both of those fine films, and there's a disturbing psychological dimension that's all its own.

Blaschke was nominated for an Oscar and a BAFTA for cinematography here. At Cannes, Eggers won the FIPRESCI Prize. And the Satellite Awards named Dafoe the Best Actor in a Supporting Role, while nominating the film for Best Motion Picture, Drama. Although it may be moody and slow, especially in the first act, there's plenty of action ahead and an almost Kubrickian denouement. See it for sure.

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