Tag: robert eggers

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Psychological horror picture “The Lighthouse” is a step back for director Robert Eggers. In “The Witch,” he is able to take a period story, set in 1630s New England, and construct a deeply unsettling tale around that time and place. It peers unblinkingly into a dark folklore and we buy every second of it. It is told with clarity, relentless energy, and with a period dialogue so uncompromising at times that it risks frustrating most viewers. In his follow-up, however, co-writing with Max Eggers, although the story takes place on an island in 1890s New England, photography in black-and-white, it feels just like any other modern twisty tale of a man’s madness unspooling in an isolated, lonely location. I received little enjoyment from it.

It cannot be denied that Willem Dafoe’s performance is entertaining. As Wake, the ill-tempered supervisor of Winslow (Robert Pattinson) who is prone to believing superstitions of the sea, he is extremely watchable when the camera places him front and center, recalling experiences he claims to have had and how he manages to tie them—no matter how tenuous—to the current predicaments that he and Winslow find themselves in. Although Pattinson attempts to match the veteran’s effortless magnetism—and there are a few moments when Pattinson is effective—he pales by comparison.

Histrionics, particularly toward the end when secrets have been spilled and blood has been spattered, are unconvincing and forced; I felt awkward during instances when the performer would go off-script because he is so into the moment. Particularly challenging when it comes to period films is that every second must feel and sound believable. I felt certain reactions to dire situations needed to be edited, cut short, or reshot altogether. Modern acting in period movies, unless this concept is meant to be the point, is most distracting. When it comes to Pattinson, who has been terrific in risk-taking roles prior to this (“The Rover,” “Good Time,” “High Life”), I felt I was watching an actor acting rather than being.

The relationship between the two men of vastly different ages and even bigger differences when it comes to how to approach the job they are tasked is meant to be rocky, a constant source of conflict. There are a handful of amusing moments when Wake would unfairly remind Winslow of his lower rank just because the old man can, but especially when Winslow broaches the subject of never getting to see the lamp of the lighthouse. Wake appears to be obsessed of being alone with that lamp. Why? Dafoe’s wicked performance suggests there might be a sexual component to it. One night, due to nagging curiosity, Winslow walks to the top of the lighthouse and sees his partner, lying naked, in the same room as giant, octopus-like tentacles. The movie gets more bizarre from there.

One of the Wake’s odd superstitions is it is bad luck to kill a seagull since each bird contains a soul of a sailor who had died. This idea ties nicely to the final shot of the film, but it commands little power or irony because the storytelling, for the most part, is muddled, composed solely of one peculiar happening after another: a mermaid encounter by the rocks, getting dead drunk and experiencing nightmares, hallucinations born out of guilt, and the like. The formula gets repetitive and exhausting after a while.

Although some thought is put behind these images, I was reminded too often of other generic psychological horror pictures in which an untrustworthy protagonist grows even more unhinged as the story moves forward. Remove the black-and-white photography in addition to the silent film aspect ratio of 1.9 to 1 and there is nothing special about “The Lighthouse.” Not once did I feel scared, or surprised, or thrilled by any of the plot developments. I found shots of ocean water crashing against the rocks during a storm to be far more hypnotic than the wild goings-on.

The Witch

The Witch (2015)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The experience of watching this meticulously crafted horror film is like being shoved into a dark, utterly silent room in which the space is lit only by flickering candles, a translucent dusty shawl permanently stitched around our heads, and we are forced to make sense of what exactly it is we are seeing, where we are possibly going, and what mysteries lie behind our limited sensations. It respects instead of cheapens the horror genre from the beginning right to the very end, a rarest quality that should be acknowledged, celebrated, and, hopefully, become a source of inspiration of future filmmakers with genuinely scary stories to tell.

“The Witch,” written and directed by Robert Eggers, is one of the best horror picture in years, one that deserves to be remembered for years to come. One of the main reasons is its hyper-realistic imagery. It is easier to embrace the universe of a story being told when what we see on screen is in line with what we imagine a specific time period to be.

Let us take a look at the clothing as example. The patriarch and his family have found a spot of land after being banished from a plantation. The family of seven start a life there and so the clothing look worn, dirty, lived in. It looks like the colors have been drained out of them. Because of what they wear, we believe that every day must involve hands-on hard work, that the lifestyle is the complete opposite of glamorous, perhaps not completely hygienic based on today’s standards. The vision and determination of getting the clothing exactly right benefits the work immensely because it functions as a conduit to transport us back in time. It becomes easier to buy into the reality of the tale and so the characters’ fears inevitably become our fears.

Something malevolent is out there in the woods. Or is there? The screenplay demands the audience to look very closely. Is the reason why the family is unable to grow crops due to a paranormal being out there in forest? Or is it that starvation itself is the trigger that forces the highly religious family to believe that an evil force is preventing them from growing food? There is an incident involving a baby suddenly disappearing that leads us to consider that perhaps it is the former. But certain images after the mysterious vanishing can be purely symbolic or imagined, not at all uncommon in intelligent, well-researched horror films in which the stories are drenched in myths and folk tales.

The acting is impeccable all around. From the leaders of the family who must conceal many secrets and endure hardships (Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie) to the young children (Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson) who claim to communicate with a goat named Black Phillip, everyone delivers not only a strong performance but also at least one memorable scene that sticks in the mind. Traumatizing events accrue; we become uneasy not only because of the environment and how the family dynamics shift over time but also when it comes to the animals in the farm and those that visit it.

Siblings Thomasin and Caleb, played by Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw, respectively, are the heart of the picture. Taylor-Joy and Scrimshaw have very strong presences, faces made for tight closeups, and chameleon-like qualities in the way they move, emote, and speak. I very much look forward to their future endeavors.

Just about every square inch of the film is alluring. The sky often looks gloomy but the open spaces harbor a mystery. When a character goes outside in the dark holding nothing but a lantern, one can hear a pin drop because the tension is so high. We squint our eyes a little more to anticipate what might be lurking in the darkness. Mainstream and sloppy horror pictures usually go for the scare after a few expected beats. This one does not. Instead, it drowns us into feeling anxious for minutes at a time. At times it downright disturbs.

Equipped with a very disquieting score, “The Witch” is clearly from a filmmaker with a clear vision and inspiration. There is a quiet confidence about it, despite being a debut feature film, that made me believe it is exactly the movie he wanted to make. My most enthusiastic congratulations to writer-director Robert Eggers for creating a piece of work that deserves to worm its way into the collective imagination.