TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. In the psychological thriller, "The Lighthouse," Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson play two 19th century seamen stationed at a lighthouse off the coast of Maine. It's the second feature written and directed by the 36-year-old Robert Eggers, who made his filmmaking debut with the supernatural horror-drama, "The Witch." Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: The premise of "The Lighthouse" seems to have been cooked up during a long night of drunken revelry. And I mean that in the best possible way. It's as though someone dared the writer-director Robert Eggers to travel to the frigid north, construct a perfect replica of a 19th century New England lighthouse, and film Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe slowly going insane for two hours. This is a brash and swaggering entertainment, a blisteringly funny horror movie soaked in rain, rum and testosterone. It's also an exquisite piece of old-fashioned film-craft - gorgeously shot in black and white in a nearly square aspect ratio that evokes the look of Hollywood's golden age.
Even after two viewings, I'm still not entirely sure what, if anything, the whole experience adds up to. But I can't say I ever wanted to tear my eyes from the screen. "The Lighthouse" hooks you from its opening shot of a boat cutting across icy waters bound for a lighthouse station on a rocky island off the coast of Maine. The movie was actually filmed at Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia. It's the 1890s. And for the next four weeks, this lonely outpost will be home for a veteran lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake, played by Dafoe, and his young apprentice, a former lumberjack named Ephraim Winslow, played by Pattinson. Eggers shoots the two actors in stunning, screen-filling close-ups, letting us study the sculpted lines of Pattinson's face and count every hair in Dafoe's mangy beard.
Dafoe in particular seems to be having the time of his life as Thomas, a crusty old sea dog with wild eyes, a foul temper and horrible flatulence, the sound of which is nearly as distracting as the loud foghorn blasts we keep hearing in the distance. Thomas can have his odd moments of tenderness, especially when he has booze in his belly and a tall tale on his tongue. But he is mostly overbearing and cruel. He bars Ephraim from going anywhere near the lighthouse beacon, saddling him instead with menial tasks like keeping the furnaces burning and emptying the chamber pots.
The tension comes to a head in one scene, in which Ephraim, played by Pattinson, is being harangued about his duties by Thomas, played by Dafoe.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LIGHTHOUSE")
WILLEM DAFOE: (As Thomas Wake) What do you call that?
ROBERT PATTINSON: (As Ephraim Winslow) Sir...
DAFOE: (As Thomas Wake) What?
PATTINSON: (As Ephraim Winslow) I mopped and swept twice out...
DAFOE: (As Thomas Wake) You lying dog.
PATTINSON: (As Ephraim Winslow) Well, I swept the...
DAFOE: (As Thomas Wake) Tis but granted the dabbent (ph) - unwiped, unwashed and disdained.
PATTINSON: (As Ephraim Winslow) Some kind of predator (ph) molested me.
DAFOE: (As Thomas Wake) Come now?
PATTINSON: (As Ephraim Winslow) I already says...
DAFOE: (As Thomas Wake) How dare you contradict me, you dog.
PATTINSON: (As Ephraim Winslow) Now look here; I ain't never intended to be no housewife nor slave in taking this job. And it ain't right. These lodges is more ramshackle than any shanty boys camp I've ever seen. The queen of England's old fancy housekeeper couldn't even have done no better than what I'd done because, I tell you, I scrubbed this here place twice over.
DAFOE: (As Thomas Wake) And I say you did nothing of the sort. And I say you swab it again, and you swab it proper-like this time. And you'll be swabbing it ten times more after that.
CHANG: Robert Eggers, who wrote the script with his brother, Max Eggers, drew on the writings of 19th century authors like Herman Melville and Sarah Orin Jewett for inspiration, as you can tell from the antiquated formality of the dialogue. Eggers was a production and costume designer before he became a filmmaker, and he brings to each movie an obsessive attention to period detail. "The Witch," his 2015 drama about a Puritan family exiled from their community, was similarly meticulous in its research of 17th century New England language and architecture.
Even more than "The Witch," "The Lighthouse" is a claustrophobic study of souls in isolation. Like "The Shining" and other cabin fever classics, it's a movie full of bad weather, guilty secrets and violent hallucinations. There are visions of octopuses and mermaids writhing in the surf that recall the grotesque horror imagery of H.P. Lovecraft. Thomas and Ephraim's relationship is full of tempestuous ups and downs. One minute, they're drunk, singing and carousing. The next minute, they're at each other's throats. There's a homoerotic dimension to their close-quarters intimacy. At times, you're not sure if they're going to destroy each other or fall into a sweaty embrace.
As formidable an acting partner as Dafoe is, Pattinson more than holds his own in this ferocious battle of wills. He holds us at every step of Ephraim's psychological breakdown, showing us his growing dislike for Thomas and his determination to bury some ugly truths from his recent past. Meanwhile, the forbidden lighthouse tower glares down at him from above, taunting him like an Olympian flame forever out of reach. In these moments, "The Lighthouse" becomes a scathing takedown of the bitterly thwarted male ego, a story of two men drowning together in their lusts, regrets and failures. It's an astonishing spectacle, if also at times a maddeningly indulgent one.
Toward the end, Eggers seems reluctant to let his characters go, even after their conflict seems to have exhausted its dramatic potential. He seems even more reluctant to abandon the magnificent prison he's built for them. "The Lighthouse" may be a little too in love with its own virtuosity, but you can hardly blame it. At a time when our movies are overrun with stale, derivative visions, it's unrepentant madness feels like both a balm and a beacon.
GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Kathryn Hahn, who stars in the new HBO series "Mrs. Fletcher," which is adapted from the bestseller by Tom Perrotta about a divorced mother whose son has just left home for college and she's having a confusing sexual reawakening. Hahn is also known for her roles in the TV series "Parks And Recreation" and "Transparent" and for the movies "Bad Moms," "Private Life" and "Step Brothers." I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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