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As the wavering cry of the foghorn fills the air, the taciturn former lumberjack, Ephraim Winslow, and the grizzled lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake, set foot in a secluded and perpetually grey islet off the coast of late-19th-century New England. For the following four weeks of back-breaking work and unfavourable conditions, the tight-lipped men will have no one else for company except for each other, forced to endure irritating idiosyncrasies, bottled-up resentment, and burgeoning hatred. Then, amid bad omens, a furious and unending squall maroons the pale beacon's keepers in the already inhospitable volcanic rock, paving the way for a prolonged period of feral hunger; excruciating agony; manic isolation, and horrible booze-addled visions. Now, the eerie stranglehold of insanity tightens. Is there an escape from the wall-less prison of the mind?Written by
Greetings again from the darkness. The opening sequence plays like something from 1920's era cinema. The chug-chug-chug of a boat slamming against the waves of an angry sea while birds flap and chirp alongside. We hear the wind and "feel" the severe ocean spray. Several minutes elapse before any word is spoken. Immediately noticeable is the nearly square aspect ratio ... the rarely (these days) seen 1.19:1 frame, making the black and white images appear both surreal and ominous.
All of the above makes perfect sense when we realize this is writer-director Robert Eggers' first feature film since his 2015 indie horror gem THE WITCH won dozens of festival awards. Mr. Eggers obviously has his own vision for projects, and his approach borders on experimental, eschewing conventional. He co-wrote this script with his brother Max, and evidently much was drawn from the actual journals of lighthouse keepers ... something that is evident in the vocabulary and the effects of solitude.
4-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe stars alongside Robert Pattison as the two men charged with a 4 week assignment of tending to a lighthouse. The film is set in 1890, and Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, the epitome of a salty old sea dog, replete with bad leg, hardcore Atlantic accent, and upside down pipe. Pattinson is Ephraim Winslow, the assistant Wickie, who faces non-stop demands from Wake, and initially maintains a quietness as he goes about his duties ... what Wake calls the 'doldrums.' We learn little about either man's past. For Wake, other than knowing his previous assistant went mad, the clue is when he mentions "13 Christmases spent at sea" costing him a family. For Ephraim, when Wake asks, "Tell me what's a timberman want with being a Wickie?" we get some insight into Ephraim's desired future.
Eggers has delivered the anti-buddy movie. It's a bleak, slow-motion race to insanity caused by being isolated with only one other person ... a person you aren't fond of. Only this is not a director or a film content with showing two men stuck on a storm-battered rock, as they slip towards insanity. No, we viewers are forced to experience some of these same feelings - how much of what we see is actually happening? It's mesmerizing and hypnotic, and the above-mentioned narrow screen aspect purposefully emphasizes the sense of confinement and claustrophobia.
With no color and only a couple of characters ... OK, 3 if you count the mermaid ...OK, 4 if you count the seagull ... the film still manages to pound us with sensory overload. We can barely process all we are seeing, despite relatively minimal 'typical' action. The black and white images are mostly just various shades of gray, and sunshine is non-existent. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (THE WITCH) embraces the dreariness by allowing the fog, lanterns, candles, wind, rain, and harsh elements to become characters unto themselves. However, nothing is in sync with our two leads. Composer Mark Korven fills the many lapses in dialogue with sounds and tones we haven't heard before, yet they fit perfectly here. This is also quite likely the first film to utilize farts and foghorns in harmony.
Director Eggers filmed this on Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia, and the extreme weather and less-than-welcoming terrain create quite the visuals - as do the faces of our two lead actors. Dafoe may never have chewed scenery so delightfully as he does here, and Pattinson starts slowly before delivering his best work - including a ferocious rant that is fascinating to watch and contrast to his character's first meal with Dafoe. Is this a horror film? A fantasy? Macabre comedy? There is simply no way to describe this other than bizarre. It's truly miserable cinema, and I loved every minute of it.
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