Who would have guessed that Robert Pattinson would turn out to be the daring one, the “Twilight” star who filled his post glitter-makeup career with the most fascinating projects?
“Good Time,” High Life,” “Damsel,” “The Lost City of Z,” “The Rover” — the guy the fangirl mags labeled “R. Patts” has challenged himself and managed a nice Daniel Radcliffe second act to his career — daring indie fare.
“The Lighthouse” is a Pattinson tour de force, which it has to be because he’s paired with the great GREAT Willem Dafoe in a mythic horror tale about two lighthouse keepers, “wickies,” trapped on a rocky island with each other, a testy relationship tested by alcohol, and the horrors that a mermaid represents.
Pattinson is Winslow, the new assistant to the keeper, Thomas Wake (Dafoe). The old man is a bossy bully, ordering the newcomer about on their one month shift on this desolate island off New England.
Winslow totes the coal that runs the steam-engine-powered foghorn in this late 19th century station, hauls the whale oil that fuels the light, fixes the roof, whitewashes the tower and “swabs” the floors in this weather-worn outpost of shipping.
The old Yankee Wake limps about, filling the wind-whipped air with tales of his sailing past, with poems about “pale death,” and sea chanteys, most of it fueled by the vast supply of booze he brought with him.
“Man what don’t drink best ‘ave his reasons,” he growls to the tee-totaller Winslow.
Wake takes the “dog watch,” the night shift that keeps the wick lit and the fresnel-lensed light steering ships clear of the rocks. He guards this duty as a sacred rite. And he won’t share it, won’t hear of training the new guy in operating the light. He keeps keys for the lens-deck on the lighthouse, and locks himself in there every night.
Winslow can only guess what the old salt does up there. But he has hints, which his dreams, and a carved whale tooth mermaid he found stuffed in his mattress, flesh out.
Might the seas surrounding their island have shrieking sirens or selkies? Mermaids?
Robert Eggers, who gave us this splendid, understated and primitive horrors of “The Witch,” brings us another gritty period piece, this one shot in black and white and in the old silent film “Academy Aperture” (square picture) aspect ratio.
He pounds us with the silences and the noise — from the incessant foghorn and shrieks of the sea to Wake’s incessant Yankee blarney and farts.
And he parks two very good actors, deep in character, in a claustrophobic space, fuels their characters with fear, jealousy and alcohol and lets the chips fall where they may.
“The Lighthouse” has an oppressive dramatic weight about it, like a Samuel Beckett play with misery and magic, bodily fluids and violence enveloping two men “Waiting for Godot,” or God or rescue or waiting for some explanation or confession about what’s really going on around there, or between them.
There are ranting monologues and chanties sung in drunken duets, dances and brawls.
And always, there’s the near-silence interrupted by the clockwork lighthouse gear, the THUMP thumping of the steam engine, the howl of the wind and the tearing/exploding sea all around them.
Madness? It’s a pretty safe bet we’ll get a taste of that. It’s just a question of who cracks first.
“The Lighthouse” has another thing in common with “The Witch.” It plays and feels longer than its 100 minutes. The picture’s relentlessness takes on an aimlessness in the latter acts. It wears you out.
And then there’s the myopia of the setting and the characters, and an ickiness that surpasses anything anyone mocked the Oscar-winning “Shape of Water” for. Some of the same folks pushing that one into a Best Picture Oscar are making the same arguments here.
Perhaps not. But with another grand turn by Dafoe, menacing and vulnerable, experienced and apprehensive, and the new gravitas of Pattinson as a brand name for “challenging cinema,” “The Lighthouse” stands apart as one of the beautifully composed, shot and acted films of the year, as well as the most harrowing.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman
Running time: 1:49