“The Lighthouse”

 

            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.  Yet.

            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. 

           

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association