Updated: Apr 27, 2021
*TLDR* - INEFFABLE PERFORMANCES BY ROBERT PATTINSON AND WILLEM DAFOE DEPICT A HORRIFYINGLY BLEAK SERIES OF INTERPERSONAL CONFLICT IN THIS AGGRESSIVELY PERVERSE AND PROMETHEAN BLACK AND WHITE PERIOD PIECE.
Where do I begin with this Masterpiece. I Don't believe it's biased to announce that this is one of my favourite movies of all time, as that attribution comes with a plethora of reasons and heavy critical speculation... but I will mention that here just to announce where I sit as a starting point for this review/recommendation. In recent years, it seems most popular production companies just distribute common corporate formula, high-budget flops, so it's nice to see A24 making a real effort with pulling together these wonderful creators and scripts for the world to see. The Lighthouse is no exception.
So what's it about?
A quiet and pensive man with little to his name (Robert Pattinson) seeks out a new life taking a position as a "Wickey", tending to the titular lighthouse otherwise maintained by a capricious and repugnant lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe) far away from the next nearest coast during the late 1800's. Their forced and extended cohabitation and mutual loneliness takes their toll on each other in strange and fascinating ways, culminating into existential questions about mental health, dependency, authority, human nature, and manipulation. Surrounding these many encounters with each other, Pattinson makes increasingly bizarre, questionable, and potentially reality defying discoveries. Totemic idols, rituals, and seafaring ethos further bring into question the nature of their relationship, their lucidity, and even reality itself. The tension and stress of these conditions result in a test of mutual resolve, and is an effective introduction for other deeper subjects to ponder such as existence, time, truth, and mysticism.
To put it lightly, this is a deep movie. However, there are tension breaks and plenty of effective moments of levity to ground the film and make it much more approachable, despite the otherwise daunting, vulgar, and graphic content.
I guess I'll start with what makes the Lighthouse incredibly unique and difficult to produce for a full-length feature; The artifacts of creative limitations if you will:
First off, there are only three members of the cast, which leaves little variety of presence on the screen and a massive amount of expectations for their contributions.
The movie is filmed in Black and White making contrast of utmost importance to illustrate shot production and quality scene composition.
It's a period piece set in the 19th century requiring a lot of research, attention to detail, and consistency in set design, character mannerisms, and language.
The setting is on a small scale where the only set-pieces are a shack and a lighthouse with an attached living quarters on a small rock which in theory would leave little variety of set-pieces and visual stimulus.
I feel like it's really important to mention this because I do believe that production limitations are a double-edged sword, where it can breed creativity and add a level of initial intrigue and impressiveness if done right, but at the expense of demand from the audience and accusations of being pretentious should it be ineffectual.
...and I am delighted to share that the film exceeds expectations in all of these regards. It squeezes everything it can from these elements to a degree I cannot overstate. The shots are all beautiful. Every scene is an attention sponge of thematic and tonal genius, talent and engaging representation of character and setting, and aesthetic excellence.
I had only ever seen Robert Pattinson in the Twilight series prior to my viewing of the lighthouse, and I was shocked to see him proving to be a titan in capturing my attention via prowess in acting ability. So if you are someone that has been putting this one off just because Edward Cullen is in it, you're doing yourself a disservice. Both actors are incredible, I would say equally so, but Robert Pattinson's appeal is easily the one I was most surprised by. I look forward to his appearance in other films.
The acting in general is astounding however. The bizarre relationship between these two requires a lot of... let's just say "intimate" chemistry. The amount of variety in emotion is quite the workload for both actor and audience member. Constantly switching between contempt and fervor, jaunty playfulness, and sorrowful attachment is almost exhausting to all parties but for good cause. The acting helps elevate these scenes, as a large draw of the lighthouse has to do with understanding what is happening between the characters, and never being quite sure as it's about as clear as mud. It's easy to assume things are one way, but little by little all the nuances in their interactions beg you to question whether it's a plight of emotional insecurity, psychopathy, psychosis, spiritual interference, eldritch horror, subterfuge, or many other possible interpretations of the insane amount of events that are occurring in the film.
I desperately want to share favourite scenes, but to avoid spoilers I will have to suffice with just sharing that this movie is filled with a vast array of equal parts subtlety and extreme assertiveness for any level of attentiveness you bring to it. I particularly enjoy the varying degrees of detail with a preference for subtlety, but having this level of boldness laid upfront also brings a level of fun and levity compared to a more traditional art-house film. It's nice when farting and other vile or disturbing depictions of behavior actually serve as plot convenience instead of just being a lazy jab at humor. Maintaining a balance of artistic subtlety and brash sensationalism brings a lot of deep thoughts and subject matter to a provocative, and punctual on-screen dynamic you don't normally see, especially at this magnitude of consistent quality.
I do have complaints, however:
The dialogue, though excellent in written form can be difficult to understand on a first watch especially in the first quarter. The seafaring dialects are so alien and fast-paced that you may be extremely put off, missing meaning and key information simply because of the language barrier. I wouldn't recommend putting captions on, but if you notice yourself hitting "rewind" just to understand what's happening, then yeah, throw on subtitles... It doesn't blemish the experience to treat it like a foreign film, but because it is in English, it can be a little frustrating to some to not understand it in full as an English speaker.
A last issue is some not too subtle scenes that seemingly have no screenplay purposes other than to reference the Greek fable of "Prometheus". So for most of us, this will fly over your head, as it did myself, but I humbly accept the scenes are still interesting and fit the tone of the relative insanity of the rest of the plot. It just lacks any direct set-up or revisiting to solidify it's inclusion beyond an allusion to an outside work of fiction. If you for whatever reason are vastly familiar with Prometheus, then you'll get something extra out of these scenes, but I don't think these scenes are worth diluting the experience for those who wish for their attention to remain solely within the run time.
There will always be flaws in every movie. In a good movie, one man's positive is an others negative. The goal of recommending isn't to absolve flaws or claim as few as possible but to share my personal thoughts. Even bearing this in mind, through considerable investment, these are my only complaints. All in all, this is a masterpiece of cinema in my opinion. It has everything you could ask for, but as with everything there are people I would not recommend this movie to:
Anyone with a weak stomach for violence or excretory phenomena.
Those who don't like watching sexually graphic content (there's more than one scene of servicing to completion, could be an upside if you're REALLY into Mr. Pattinson) or you expect a co-audience member to make that awkward.
Anyone with clear distaste of any of the aesthetic choices I've mentioned (If you just hate black and white movies, there's no reason to force yourself, although I'd recommend broadening your horizons)
Anyone who cannot celebrate contentious, gross, or offensive content matter.
People just looking for an easily digestible popcorn inhaler movie.
Otherwise, I highly highly recommend this movie and would hope you can find a time to watch it in your schedule. Invite some of your friends that like higher-concept, alternative humor movies, and be prepared for genuine and constant laughs, shock, intrigue, and discussion. This has been The Shelf signing off again with another recommendation. Hopefully we see you around for a brand new review next week.