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DIRECTED BY: Robert Eggers
PLOT: Ephraim Winslow attempts to escape his past and earn good money tending a remote lighthouse for a month under ex-sea captain Thomas Wake; things get desperate when they are not relieved on schedule.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: What begins as “standard” art-horror keeps shoveling on the madness until you can’t think it can go any farther. It does, and ends on a Promethean note that looks like it could have been lifted straight from a sharper-imaged Begotten.
COMMENTS: I sat too far to the front to be able to tell you if anyone walked out of the movie (often a good sign for us), but I can tell you that it passed the next best test: right after it ended, a viewer queried loudly, “What the fuck was that?” I have to admit that that is a fair question. I kept alternating my “Candidate/Capsule” toggle throughout the movie, right up until the soggy, sickly, climax when two compelling things occurred. The first thing: watching Robert Pattinson burn away any mainstream reputation he might have had from his Twilight movies. The second thing: I could not have hoped for a better, more mind-popping final shot.
The first word of dialogue isn’t one, really. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), recently arrived to as remote an island as possible, makes a muffled grunt when entering his quarters. At the far end of the room, his boss, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), finishes urinating into a chamber pot and pointedly passes gas before beginning to hum. Ephraim, his environment established and his company defined, does his lowly duties, forever pining to tend the beacon that Thomas jealously guards. A one-eyed seagull torments the young man, until one day he responds to its attack by smashing it thoroughly to death against a cistern. This forgivable outburst is the catalyst for a storm that smashes against the island, changing Ephraim’s circumstances from mundane and miserable to forlorn and febrile.
Its frame ratio, as far as I was able to observe, is one-to-one1, a presentation typically found only in very old movies. The motion of characters from one corner to the opposite diagonal of the screen just doesn’t have the same “punch” when there’s a standard panorama to cross, and the screen’s confines heighten the cramped nature of the setting. The lighting, too, hearkens back to cinema’s early days. The Lighthouse is set in the late 19th century on the edge of a watery nowhere, and the light comes only from occasional, well-diffused sunlight and dim candles. Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake, illuminated by a flickering light against the black room, was the stuff of comic nightmares. (His dialogue, the credits admit, is largely taken from Herman Melville, and every soliloquy is both bombastic and believable.)
Eggers drives the narrative in the one direction it can go—but while so doing brings in every horrible bit of natural humanity (Aleksey German crossed my mind on many occasions), grappling his characters to the edge before giving them a final shove into the roiling abyss. Knowing Dafoe’s filmography, I knew he had the chops; Pattinson, I have now seen, can match him. Dafoe is credited first, but this is Pattinson’s breakout-crazy performance (so here’s hoping he wanted one). Ephraim explodes in his final rant, its power almost a palpable force in the cinema, silencing the small crowd of hipsters. When the young man posed the question mentioned in the first paragraph, he was speaking for every viewer.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: