The Lighthouse

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse (2019)

The Lighthouse (2019)

Written by Robert & Max Eggars. Directed by Robert Eggars.

As anyone who comes here regularly would know, I watch a lot of movies. Sometimes they are perfectly fine while up on the screen but don’t stay with me, and within hours I need to refer to notes made in the cinema to jog my memory into writing a review. Not so with Robert Eggars’ latest film – I found it truly memorable and cannot stop thinking about it!

The Lighthouse is many things, which makes it difficult to adequately describe without giving away massive plot spoilers – which I have no intention of doing. Suffice it to say, I found this seemingly simple story of two men alone in a lighthouse a riveting cinematic experience that becomes increasingly complex and deep. From the opening scene, this is a film that demands your full attention and becomes (at times) uncomfortably intense.

Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson star in this two-hander and both are excellent. I’ve come to expect this of Dafoe, who never disappoints, but Pattinson is extraordinary here and has become an actor of depth and serious value. There is surprisingly little dialogue between them but that is delivered with intent and tension. For a relatively quiet film, it’s very loud, with superb diagetic sound and a score that weaves through this isolated and desolate world.

For film nerds (like me), the movie was shot on 35 mm black and white film stock, using vintage Baltar lenses, which required much stronger lighting for the interior scenes, creating deeper contrasts and also forcing the almost square 1.19:1 (or Movietone) aspect ratio. This makes so much of the film ultra close up and at times, downright claustrophobic despite being so isolated. There are many seemingly small things like this that combine together to make this film a cinephile’s delight – the haunting sound design, the very specific dialects used by the actors, the atmospheric score by Mark Korven, the brilliant cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, and the superb editing by Louise Ford. All combine together to make a truly memorable cinematic experience.

Narratively, the story was drawn initially from an unfinished work by Edgar Allen Poe and a real-life incident from an early 19th century Welsh lighthouse. But at its heart, I think this has more in common with Greek tragedy – particularly Proteus, the prophetic sea god and Prometheus, the trickster who stole fire from the gods and was punished so horribly. Set in the late 19th century, this is a period piece that doesn’t exclude modern viewers. There are strong themes of the performative nature of work and masculinity, which are relatable audience entry points and become so very obvious as the layers of social norms are stripped away from the characters and their true natures revealed. And above all, the lighthouse – which almost becomes a character itself, in all its intense and claustrophobic isolation.

At times, The Lighthouse is a hard watch and if you’re not a fan of being challenged by a piece of cinema, I cannot recommend it to you. However, if you like horror that is cerebral as well as visceral, you’ve come to the right place. If there is a fault, it is a little over-long with a running time of 109 minutes, but I wonder now if that was intentional. Like Eggars’ previous feature, The Witch (2015) there are questions posed that are never answered. The existential horror at the core of this drama is arguably something that exists in all of us and here, Robert Eggars in concert with his excellent cast and crew, gradually peel away the artifice of societal expectations to reveal that dark heart.

The Lighthouse is currently in (relatively) wide release across Australia and I’d like to thank Monster Fest for the opportunity to see and review it.

Beirut

Beirut 2018 Directed by Brad Anderson

*No spoilers in this review*

I went to an advanced screening of this over the weekend and it was a packed house. After the film as we were filing out, one of the staff asked a patron if they enjoyed it. The older woman replied “well, I don’t think enjoy is quite the right word. It was very interesting but a bit confusing” and I think that’s a fair assessment of this densely packed political thriller.

Directed by the always visually reliable Brad Anderson, the screenplay is by Tony Gilroy who wrote the Bourne trilogy, Michael Collins and my favourite Star Wars film, Rogue One. There are some fairly difficult issues embedded in this period thriller and at first glance, it would be easy to dismiss it as just another example of western filmmakers using a Middle Eastern location for ethnic flavour and racial stereotyping but I think it offers more on deeper examination.

First and foremost, this is clearly a star vehicle for Jon Hamm (who I last saw and loved in Baby Driver) and he is wonderful as Mason Skiles, the alcoholic and grief stricken former political negotiator. It can’t be denied there are echoes of Don Draper here but I think Hamm pushes beyond that by virtue of Anderson’s direction, a lovingly crafted script and a charismatic performance from Hamm. Rosamund Pike is the perfect choice as his foil and she gives a fine and nuanced performance among a lot of boys as a CIA operative and Skiles’ handler.

The film opens in 1972 and after much calamity and personal heartbreak for Mason Skiles, the action forwards to 1982. The clichés abound (especially when the three characters representing US government interests are introduced), and I noticed some quite heavy symbolism at times – particularly around children playing in and around weapons and rubble and blatant disparities between privilege and poverty. At times I was reminded of films like the Bourne trilogy and even Syriana but ultimately it was an examination of one man in extreme crisis, seeking personal redemption.

Some of it is pretty clunky and (without giving anything away) I wasn’t really on board with the ending but it really is worth it for Jon Hamm’s fine performance. If you want to get the most out of this, it probably pays to have at least a passing knowledge of Middle Eastern history of the period, but at its heart, Beirut is looking at the political tragedy of the time through the lens of personal loss and the notion that terrorists are not born but made.

Beirut opens at the State Cinema, Elizabeth Street, North Hobart Thursday 26th July.