Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
Robert Eggers directed a critically-acclaimed horror film called The Witch (2016). What was notable about that film was the dialogue. Eggers painstakingly wrote lines to be precise or as accurate as possible to the area and time period, which was 1630’s New England. He was also painstaking in other details like costume and production design, so that he could really immerse the audience in what can feel like another world. Yet, he wants to be of this Earth, even as he throws in supernatural elements. This film, also directed and co-written by Eggers, immerses the audience with how Eggers crafts things painstakingly.
What’s notable right away is the fact that this film is in all black-and-white and it’s shot on 35 mm in possibly Movietone ratio, which is the closest to being a perfect square image. On a widescreen surface, it provides a pillarbox effect, which might contribute to a constricting or claustrophobic feeling that Eggers might be trying to convey. The setting is a single location, that of an island along the East Coast, possibly in or near New England. The island is where a lighthouse stands with a tiny domicile next to it. The island only has two inhabitants, the two men who maintain the lighthouse and the domicile. The two men are only supposed to be there on the island for a month or so, maybe less. However, when the relief ship never shows up, things start to spiral for the two.
The whole thing was actually reminiscent of an episode of The Twilight Zone. Rod Serling’s classic series frequently did episodes about men stranded and those men turning on each other, as they deteriorate psychologically. Serling’s series usually had a science-fiction aspect like he would have astronauts lost on an alien planet or something, which makes sense given that Serling wrote that series during the height of the space race. Eggers seems more inspired by the New England landscapes from whence he came.
Unlike Serling, who wanted to make cogent points about the human condition and the human experience, Eggers doesn’t care about being cogent, as he leans more into the surreal. There were times when Serling could seem like he’s dipping into the surreal, but he remained mostly logical in his narratives. Eggers has crazy stuff happen simply for crazy’s sake. Eggers might argue, though, that everything he’s done is based in some religious or cultural folklore that he’s weaving here, just as he weaved in The Witch. At one point, a mermaid appears, so maybe Eggers is drawing from some myth about mermaids as to what we see happen to the two men in question.
Four-time, Oscar-nominee Willem Dafoe (Shadow of the Vampire and Platoon) stars as Thomas Wake, a former sailor in the Navy. His rank is unknown, but it seems as if he’s not in military service anymore. Instead, he is sent to this island and maintains the lantern atop the lighthouse. He doesn’t allow the one and only other man atop the lighthouse. He’s very crabby about it too. He’s very much a curmudgeon. He’s also very much tough on the other, younger man whom lives with him on this island. He is very strict and brutally tough on the younger man. He seems akin to a drill sergeant, not being mean out of malice but to endure the arduous work that’s at hand. Funnily, he speaks like Yoda from the Star Wars franchise. Sometimes, he behaves like Yoda. At one point though, it seems as if Dafoe becomes his character from Aquaman (2018) in figurative and literal ways.
Robert Pattinson (Good Time and Twilight) co-stars as Ephraim Winslow, a man who claims he used to work in the timber industry, farther north. He left for some reason and has bounced from job-to-job before landing at this lighthouse. He’s more quiet than Thomas Wake who is a bit of a loudmouth. He also doesn’t appreciate that Thomas works him like a dog. Ephraim gets orders barked at him and typically has to do a lot of the manual labor, which he does but silently resents. Living in such close quarters with an older man who is very flatulent and unpleasant in other regards starts to weigh on Ephraim. As the days and possibly weeks go on, it’s clear that Ephraim is starting to lose his mind.
Ephraim then begins to become suspicious of Thomas. For starters, Thomas won’t let Ephraim up to the top of the lighthouse to help maintain the lantern. This builds a curiosity in Ephraim to want to know what’s up there and what Thomas does up there. At the same time, Ephraim begins to notice strange or peculiar things like seagulls that behave oddly or stubbornly. He even starts to have visions. What they mean or what they point out are never revealed in a satisfying way. Although I complained that the ending to The Witch leaned too much on the supernatural and Eggers refraining from providing any answers at the ending, here might be the better move.
It’s just that I was bored with much of what happens here. Episodes of The Twilight Zone were the right length. The length here is supposed to be felt, but I felt it in the wrong way. Things felt very repetitive very quickly. Here, things felt dragged until its very anticlimactic climax. Of course, it builds to a predictable moment of violence. The delay to get there, though, didn’t seem worth it.
What isn’t predictable is a moment between the two men where it seems as if they’re about to kiss. It was an unexpected turn. Instead of pursuing that avenue and exploring the depths of it, Eggers immediately backs off from it. Obviously, men in isolated situations, cut off from anyone else, particularly women, might turn to each other for affection or sexual gratification. Eggers does give a furious masturbation scene to Ephraim, but exploring affection between the two men could have made this whole thing a lot more intriguing than it ultimately was.
Rated R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 49 mins.