Sunday 2 February 2020

Wanking while winking: "The Lighthouse"

You may have already forgotten about the other spooky lighthouse movie of the past twelve months: it went under the generic title of The Vanishing, starred Gerard Butler and Peter Mullan, and was by most accounts not the worst way to spend a quiet evening in, which is more than could be said for the majority of Butler's big-screen vehicles this century. What it wasn't, however, was The Lighthouse, which is what happens when a similar set-up is turned over to a prodigious talent with a clutch of good reviews under his belt and a desire to nudge genre cinema in new directions, or at least into a different shape. Robert Eggers has taken his time in following up 2015's The Witch (The VVitch, if we must); he now gets back to us with a headscrambling mix of freakout movie and odd-couple comedy, seemingly inspired by Carl Dreyer, Samuel Coleridge and Harold Pinter, which simply wouldn't have been made had the mid-level indie studio backing it not been reassured by the participation of two adventurous name actors capable of drawing an audience and thus ensuring a risk like this might just claw its budget back. Reporting for duty: Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as, respectively, the fresh-faced rookie and the phlegmmy old seadog assigned to the titular landmark, poised on the cliffedge of nowhere, for a four-week stint. They arrive hoping for a quiet shift, yet quiet is the last word anyone might reasonably use about The Lighthouse. Here's a two-hour raspberry, ever so artfully blown.

From the off, everything's off; this is not a movie that allows its viewers or characters to easily find their sea legs. It's been shot in black-and-white, in an Academyish ratio that's probably a sliver too elongated - too lighthouse-shaped! - to qualify as proper Academy; it's written, as The Witch was written, in a period-specific patter that suggests what might have happened if David Milch had penned a nautical spin-off from TV's Deadwood; and the score rapidly becomes indistinguishable from this lighthouse's foghorn and the older keeper's parping. No slow builds here. Within seconds of the new keepers' arrival, the story of a prior tenant who went mad and suffered a sorry fate is being trotted out, and Pattinson is both having visions of corpses and mermaids and being targeted by an especially sociopathic seagull, keen to nick more than just his chips. This lighthouse is a weird place - stocked by production designer Craig Lathrop with all manner of arcane, clanking instruments - to which we travel to see weird shit go down; it is as mad as a very tall box of frogs. Naturally, this doesn't bode well for those it shelters: the law-unto-himself cap'n, who spends his nights getting sloshed and jealously guarding the light, and his put-upon underling, drifting onto the rocks of distraction. Sailors at sea have the lighthousemen watching out for them, but who watches the watchmen? There's no safety net in place, which induces a gulp when we see, say, poor old R-Pattz abseiling down the lighthouse to apply a fresh coat of whitewash. "Never been in better hands," Dafoe gargles. Are we?

Well, there are disadvantages to being this bluntly upfront. The Witch crept up on us, hushed and unnerving. Trumpeted to the heavens since its debut at Cannes last summer, The Lighthouse can't possibly do that: what lands on UK screens this weekend is a very knowing midnight movie compiled by a creative having enormous fun doing whatever he likes with actors prepared to enter into the right bawdy spirit. You can practically hear every last man, woman and jackdaw on set trying to suppress chuckles as the camera tracks through the detritus of a night of carousing to alight on three giant turds floating in an overburdened bedpan, no less vivid for being filmed in aesthetic monochrome. Eggers appears to have spent the entirety of postproduction getting his sound designers to crank up the rattling of the lighthouse's boiler, or the thunder in the storm that roils over this stretch of coast as the movie passes the halfway mark; on set, meanwhile, he clearly devoted the bulk of his time to getting Dafoe to go to town and back on his every last "aarrh, me hearties"-style declaration.

"Now do it on one leg, while farting."

(You sort of wish the director had paid equal attention to Pattinson's impossibly wobbly accent, but then precision isn't really what The Lighthouse is going for.)

Taken as a whole, the film is too much the lark - too obviously the result of a filmmaker and actors being granted carte blanche to muck about - to be as scary or freaky as you may have heard elsewhere. Neither is it wildly unpredictable: a descent into squawking, axe-wielding madness, albeit one with a brief timeout for kinky mermaid sex. Get past the sniggering and windypops, however, and there are glimpses of something stickier and more interesting than the raucously curated cult movie The Lighthouse settles for being - a study of men in extreme isolation. Eggers' antagonists progress from an initial froideur to something like bonhomie after that drunken bender, thence - after a lot of scratching of and playing with themselves - to a vicious fight for supremacy once it becomes clear the rain has done for their provisions. This development occasions one of the film's better, bleaker gags: the keepers dig up what they hope will be a back-up supply, only to find all their predecessors have stocked for them is more grog. Eggers is too busy slapping on the mannerism to land anything lingering in the way of punches or points, but here he touches on actual, troubling substance - the inability of men to look after themselves, or each other. If there's anything remotely approaching real tragedy to behold beneath the film's whitewash of eccentricity, it's that its protagonists work themselves silly fixing up a structure that couldn't care less about their wellbeing, while letting themselves fall into abject disrepair. Eggers must have met some very strange individuals on the convention and festival circuit while promoting The Witch; it wouldn't surprise me if some of their essence, and some of their odours, found their way into this script.

The Lighthouse is now playing in selected cinemas.

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