Since first becoming a household name by starring in the “Twilight” series more than a decade ago, Robert Pattinson has consistently used his fame to help get some fairly noncommercial films made and shake his teen heartthrob image in the process.
From getting a prostate exam in the back of a limousine in David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis” to his grimy role as a thief in the Safdie brothers’ “Good Time” to a far-out journey into outer space with iconic French director Claire Denis in “High Time,” Pattinson’s considerations don’t appear to go anywhere near box-office potential. (Although that will undoubtedly be his wheelhouse again once he stars as Bruce Wayne in 2021′s anticipated Batman reboot.)
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It’s difficult to imagine ticket sales exploding for “The Lighthouse,” a tale of two men working as lighthouse keepers off the coast of New England in the 1890s, but that makes its mere existence and artistry all the more remarkable. (The film, which played at Austin’s Fantastic Fest as a secret screening last month, is now in theaters.)
Willem Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, a grizzled and cantankerous man who doesn’t exactly roll out a welcome mat for his newest employee, Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson). After the latter’s arrival, Thomas makes it clear that he is in charge of the lighthouse and Ephraim is there merely to attend to all the grunt work that needs done. And there is plenty.
The two men share the cramped and rustic living quarters of the lighthouse as they alternate shifts. Aside from grunting orders, Thomas prepares their nightly dinners, is remarkably flatulent and drinks more than his fair share of alcohol. This is something that Ephraim initially avoids, and we get the sense that he’s not a teetotaler for moral reasons, but perhaps has wisely decided that he should no longer imbibe.
In his second feature film, Robert Eggers keeps things dark and simple. There are only three credited actors here — aside from Dafoe and Pattinson, Valeriia Karaman is listed simply as “Mermaid.” She pops up in Ephraim’s dreams and fantasies. In their isolation and discomfort, the two men alternate between rivalry and begrudging friendship. For awhile, it seems as though they might actually enjoy each other’s company, but the feeling is short-lived after Ephraim relents to drinking, and bad weather subsequently wrecks havoc on their living quarters. He holds his own against Thomas, who is a well-seasoned alcoholic, so that also helps to aggravate tempers and highlight the true loneliness both men feel.
Shot on 35mm film stock and photographed in black and white in the boxy 1.19:1 aspect ratio of early silent films, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (who also shot Eggers’ “The Witch”) manages to capture incredible shadows, image levels that look like pure black ink pouring off the screen and frame the imagery as though you are flipping through a turn-of-the-century scrapbook.
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Eggers co-wrote the screenplay with his brother, Max, and the period dialogue is occasionally difficult to understand (Pattinson slides a hand-rolled cigarette into his mouth during one speech for which I could’ve used subtitles). The script provides some light comic relief along the way, but those moments are few and far between. The preview audience laughed the hardest when the men were lobbing insults at each other in one of many intensely verbal squabbles.
“The Lighthouse” is not easy viewing in any capacity, but it is one of the most wild, distinctive movie-going experiences I’ve had all year.
This review was originally published during Fantastic Fest 2019 and was updated Oct. 24, 2019.