Two-person movies are always a bit risky, because it's going to
look and feel more like a play. And
this one does, as well. But
the performances are strong enough that you're mesmerized, anyway, even
though it's not a happy experience. Because
these two are not happy men.
Sometime in the 19th century (though actually it could
have been anytime a couple of hundred years before that), two men are
rowed in a tender boat toward an isolated lighthouse, somewhere off the
New England coast. The howling
wind is constant, as are the crashing waves.
And also a persistent and very loud foghorn, coming from the
lighthouse itself. The two men
are dropped off, and begin trudging up the rocky slope.
They aren't saying anything to each other.
In fact, Director and co-author Robert Eggers doesn't engage the
viewer with any dialogue at first. The
men are busy about their chores. The
older one, obviously the senior in command (Willem Dafoe), is in charge of
the light itself, and making sure it's burning brightly.
The younger one (Robert Pattinson) seems to be doing all the grunt
work: bringing the coal by
wheelbarrow and shoveling it into the basement furnace.
Swabbing the deck. Repairing
the roof shingles. It looks
like a bare, rugged kind of existence.
And to emphasize that point, Eggers films this in black and white.
Finally, at dinnertime, we begin a conversation.
Thomas, the older one, can be quite garrulous, though he often
speaks using very formal and educated vocabulary, which in this
environment seems almost pretentious.
He keeps calling the new one “lad,” but eventually he insists
on being called by his given name, Ephraim Winslow.
Ephraim at first says he is not much of a talker.
But this is like the dynamic between the two old cowboys in
“Lonesome Dove,” one of them the strong, silent type, and the other
the constant talker. Eventually,
the silent type has to respond, whether he feels it's useful or not.
We find out that Ephraim came from a logging company in Canada.
He says he needed a change. Thomas accepts that, for now, but
happily regales Ephraim with sea stories, including strongly-held
superstitions, like you don't harm a seagull, because they contain the
souls of sailors who've been lost at sea.
Ephraim keeps claiming that the manual says he's not supposed to be
just a slave laborer, that he's also supposed to take turns being in
charge of the light. Thomas
retorts that the manual doesn't mean anything, and besides, it also says
he's in command, and Ephraim will do what he tells him to do. Thomas won't
even let Ephraim into the upstairs area, where the light is.
He keeps the only key on his person at all times.
Meanwhile, Ephraim is beginning to go a little bonkers with all the
solitude and the heavy labor. Worse,
a storm blows in---a big Nor'easter---and their isolation increases.
The boat carrying their shift relief can't get near.
Doing anything outside is treacherous and dangerous, but the coal
must still be brought in, and sometimes out there Ephraim thinks he sees a
mermaid. Or even Poseidon.
He's definitely losing it. But
then, so is Thomas, who feels his command authority slipping.
The two men begin to argue. Then
fight. Then get drunk
together, laugh uproarously, and even dance the jig.
Meanwhile, the storm continues to rage, provisions are running low,
and all the two men have to do all day is drown their sorrows in strong
drink, and spew out their regrets, recriminations, and self-loathing.
It's dramatic, and it's powerful, but it's not fun.
For them or the viewers.