Film Review: “The Lighthouse”

Starring: Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Rated: R
Running Time: 109 minutes
A24

When “The Lighthouse” opens, we watch as two lighthouse keepers sourly look towards a tiny island dotting the vast ocean ahead. Towering above the horizon is the lighthouse that they’ll be in charge of for the next four weeks. We won’t learn who these lighthouse keepers are, much less their names, until much later in the movie. That’s because both don’t know each other or seem concerned about exchanging pleasantries. The younger lighthouse keepers, Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), is given the more strenuous duties on the miniature island, while the older lighthouse keepers, Thomas Wake (Dafoe), mysteriously secludes himself in the lighthouse.

Taking place in the late 19th century, Wake, a curmudgeonly veteran of the lighthouse trade, holds on to several superstitions, which he rambles on about like its Sunday gospel. He warns his counterpart about bothering or harming the seagulls that permeate the island because the pesky seabirds house the souls of dead sailors. We also hear from him that the previous lighthouse keeper went mad, claiming to have been beckoned by the call of nearby sirens. Winslow, who’s initially suspicious of his superior and the tales he tells, finds a mermaid token stuffed into his mattress as he settles in. That seems to trigger an avalanche of bizarre happenings and sights on the miniscule space of land.

“The Lighthouse” finds a multitude of reasons for these lighthouse keepers to go inevitably go mad. Everything from cabin fever and mistrust, to the mass consumption of alcohol and the reality that their four weeks may become longer as a storm approaches. As the film progresses, it’s difficult to tell which lighthouse keeper is telling the truth, which one is hallucinating, and what exactly is happening, if anything, on the island. Dread drips throughout this film, thanks to a bombastic soundtrack and the movie being filmed in black and white. The terrors of the night and day are enhanced by the monochromatic landscape and sets.

On a technical level, this film is hauntingly gorgeous. When we see the lighthouse at night, we expect a monster to be perched on top, but instead it’s Wake, who appears to be bewitched by the light he claims to protect. When Winslow moves about the island with his work duties, whether it’s during blustery rain storms or in the dead of night, it feels lonely and isolated because all he has are his thoughts and visions. Neither have anything to attach themselves to, other than their work, especially since neither appears to have a busy work hobby, much less a book. Yet if something is on the island with them, we know that Winslow and Wake have no way to escape.

“The Lighthouse” manages to feel claustrophobic despite all the space given to these actors to play in. Despite their tiny lodging, they appear to have all the room in the world when they need to yell at or lung at one another. Dafoe, a natural in acting, seems to go through the motions at the beginning, as if he’s stretching the sea legs of his conniving character. He shines as bright as a lighthouse in the final act though, specifically in one scene I won’t reveal and another where his character delivers a chilling soliloquy. Equally impressive is Pattinson, who has the heaviest lifting throughout as his character descends into madness. The nightmarish visions and back-breaking work eventually tears down Winslow’s tough guy persona at the beginning. Pattinson channels fear and paranoia through his piercing eyes.

As evidenced by some of the more horrific or horror-centric films of 2019, “Midsommar” and “Climax” come to mind, “The Lighthouse” is a movie that you let digest. Having a gut reaction afterwards would do a disservice to the craft presented on-screen. As a reviewer, I’m in a pinch because a second viewing would solidify my overall attitude towards this film, but I do know that my initial experience was positive. Even though we’re trapped with these characters for nearly two hours, the film never feels long because it’s unnerving. Director Robert Eggers finds the right moments to be overtly creepy, violent and sexual, just like he did in his previous film, “The Witch.” There are also numerous light moments of humor that help undercut a lot of the palpable tension. “The Lighthouse” won’t make you jump or have you turning on a night light when you get home, but it may haunt your dreams like any good campfire tale of terror.

Film Review: “Midsommar”

Starring: Florence Pugh, Jack Reynor and William Jackson Harper
Directed by: Ari Aster
Rated: R
Running Time: 140 minutes
A24

I don’t use superlatives a lot in my reviews, but I think it’s fitting this time because “Midsommar” has one of the most unsettling and gripping openings to a horror film I’ve ever seen. The movie begins on a snowy night in the states with Dani (Pugh), frantically trying to get a hold of her parents after a trouble set of texts from her bipolar sister stating that the darkness is too much, along with remarks about their parents. Compounding the issue is Dani’s boyfriend, Christian (Reynor), who seems disinterested in her concern about her sister, and why her parents aren’t picking up their phone. In fact, we find out, he’s at the bar getting drunk with friends, mulling over a potential break-up with Dani, instead of showing a single shred of worry. Christian is about to pull the trigger on their nearly four year long relationship when he gets a phone call from Dani. As soon as he answers, we hear the most horrifying cries of agony. Dani learns that her sister has taken her own life, and the lives of their parents, via carbon monoxide poisoning.

Cutting ahead to the summer, their relationship is still strained, Christian is still distant, and Dani is still dealing with grief. Escapism, for both, comes in the form of Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren), one of Christian’s Swedish friends. Pelle is inviting Christian and their mutual friends, Josh (Harper) and Mark (William Poulter) to Pelle’s small village of Halsingland. They’ll be privy to a true once in a lifetime event, a festival that’s only held once every 90 years. Despite this village’s knowledge of the outside world and how advanced we’ve become, the people of Halsingland hold on to some incredibly archaic, brutal and terrifying beliefs that’ll slowly unfold over the course of a few days.

Unlike Director Ari Aster’s last film, “Hereditary,” nearly all of “Midsommar” is in the bright light of day, as the rural village sits nearly at the top of Scandinavia, so the sun, if ever this of year, doesn’t ever set below the horizon for the time that our characters are there. So much of the film’s horror doesn’t even happen in the cloak of darkness. The terror of the unknown, the secrets that this village holds, what their plans are, and what’s behind every closed door, happens in the optimistic shine of daylight. If anything, the moments in the dark are a part of a dream-like sequence or in the midst of a heavy dusk when the characters are lurking about the village, when they shouldn’t be.

The Americans in this movie should know better since the village is one constant red flag after another, but the slow boil of the plot plays into Aster’s hands as he’s given enough time to establish why each character remains there despite the overwhelming amount of evidence that says, “Run.” Josh is an anthropology student, looking to do his dissertation on the little researched village of Halsingland, shrugging off morbid rituals as cultural differences. Mark is a stereotypical horndog, thinking a lot more with his second, believing that a European excursion will get him high and laid. He’s half right. Dani seems aimless and lost in the world after the death of her entire family at the beginning, still pondering how she could ever move forward. Meanwhile, her boyfriend, Christian, whose seemingly non-commital to everything, is genuinely indifferent to danger. In fact, having any sense of self-preservation in these kinds of movies gets you killed first. Two ancillary characters, who were also invited to the village by Swedish friend from England, are the first to sound the alarm, but they soon disappear.

Maybe it’s because I watched “Hereditary” and knew that Aster loved sprinkling his movie with copious amounts of breadcrumbs, but I didn’t find myself completely shocked about the things that eventually transpired, nor was I shocked by the various, gruesome revelations that stacked on top of one another. That being said, I’m sure there are dozens of breadcrumbs that I missed because Aster is meticulous. Nothing seen in this film is incidental or by accident, it all serves a purpose towards the film’s numerous themes and subject matter. As to what this movie is about, that’s a lot to unpack. I’m certain that a movie as thematically open-ended as this is sure to leave a different, long lasting impact on viewers. That might mean that there is inherently no wrong way to interpret this, but only Aster is privy to how to correctly take it all in.

Since Aster had made this film deeply personal, “Midsommar” is most certainly a contemplation of death, literally and figuratively. One could muse that Dani seems unable to let her relationship with Christian die. Even though she mentions to a friend at the beginning of the movie that she suspects Christian is ready to dump her. She seems indecisive about confronting him, while sub-consciously knowing that it should come to an end. Even as they both walk like zombies through their relationship, Dani shows another layer to this toxicity, a fear. Despite taking a leap by going to a strange country, strange village and take part in their strange customs, she holds on to this belief that letting go of what’s she become accustomed to is the end, when it’s not. It’s odd finding that nugget of commonality in humanity amongst the gore and paganism. As for Christian, the movie does a fantastic job making the audience care less and less about what happens to him, showing over and over again that he’s emotionally detached from his friends and the world because he’s inherently selfish. Dani pines for a sense of unity, while Christian views people as a means to an end. In that regard, their individual fates are fitting.

It’s hard not to compare “Midsommar” and “Hereditary,” even though they’re drastically different in several categories. For example, “Hereditary” was a horror grounded in Satanism and the paranormal, whereas “Midsommar” is horror grounded in heathen ideology and violent ceremonies, without the use of supernatural forces. However both require a great deal of effort by its cast to read and act out these bizarro scenes with the utmost, straightest of faces. It’s hard to spot a flaw in any of the performances, with Pugh being the standout here as her character deals with so much emotional turmoil. One standout bit of acting by her is the opening scene where she mourns. In my line of work, I’ve had to edit clips of mothers at the scene of a homicide, sobbing loudly through the most tragic of griefs as they find out that their child is dead. Pugh captures that bone chilling wail flawlessly and it should cut into anyone.

“Midsommar” is an unsettling nightmare, showing unflinching carnage, all while smiling back at you. Aster’s sophomore effort will certainly be criticized by the mainstream audiences for being heartlessly malicious, crass, and boring, as evidenced by the handful of people that walked out of my screening at the first sign of violence in the film. I, like others, will be endlessly picking it apart in my mind, discussing it with others who’ve watched it and reading the insurmountable online articles by cinephiles attempting to do the same. I have yet to say a negative thing about this movie, which would usually necessitate a higher rating than the one I’m giving it, but this is an instance, much like “Climax” from earlier this year, where a second viewing would help me solidify my opinion on this film, and whether or not I’d rank it higher. My only hesitancy with “Midsommar” is its rewatchability, mainly because I didn’t find “Hereditary” as enjoyable the second time, nor would I ever want to watch it again. Like some high-concept films, enough time has to pass for a viewer to rewatch, analyze and appreciate during a second time, as opposed to a Hollywood blockbuster. I’m also fully aware that’s a critical cop out my end. However, “Midsommar” may be that, once every few years, trip to the museum, where you need a healthy amount of time to mull over and appreciate the art for what it is.

 
Related Content

Film Review: “Climax”

Starring: Sofia Boutella, Kiddy Smile and Roman Guillermic
Directed by: Gaspar Noe
Rated: R
Running Time: 96 minutes
A24

Usually for arthouse films, you hear the phrase, “This may not be for everyone.” When it comes to Gaspar Noe films, they may not be for anyone. Having only seen “Enter the Void,” out of curiosity on Netflix one night, my second trip into Noe’s twisted mind comes in the form of a dance troupe’s celebration before heading out on an international tour. They got the jams, they got the drinks, and they got the food. However, an uninvited guest is about to crash their party.

The jubilation slowly turns into a horrifying mystery as members of the young French dance team suspect someone has spiked their sangria with drugs. Things decline quickly as the LSD takes hold, leading to arguments, more dancing, graphic violence, more dancing, deaths, more dancing, graphic sex and more dancing. Luckily for audience members that might not have the stomach for Noe’s twisted vision, he never comes off as an edgelord looking to exploit his characters for ghoulish fun. Instead he’s more transfixed on how an eclectic group of young 20-somethings in the mid-90’s quickly turn on each other or flock into unsuspecting arms when their perceptions deteriorate.

“Climax” doesn’t abide by any cinematic rules, as it begins with the film’s end credits, then fixates on an old box TV that plays VHS interview tapes of all the dancers we’re about to meet. After every character’s brief introduction, the film switches to the old abandoned school where the madness goes down, beginning with a lengthy dance sequence, all within a single take. There’s actually quite a few single takes in the film, some that would make Alejandro Inarritu scratch his head in curiosity as to how it was pulled off.

A movie like this in anyone else’s hands would be boring, but Noe keeps you transfixed to the screen as he flies seamless and methodically around the school, like a curious specter watching the pure bedlam unfold. There’s genuine dread as several scenarios are left to playout as the LSD amplifies character’s primal instincts. It’s in these moments that you realize that despite our best attempts to do good for the benefit of society, self-preservation will kick in or we’ll resort to our most basic animal instincts. Of course it’s entirely possible that you’ll take away a different experience or viewpoint.

Much of the film is made even more impressive by the tidbit that the cast is made up of professional dancers, not professional actors. We never see the hallucinations from their point of view, but the pain or pleasure is etched all over their faces. The only person of note in this film is Sofia Boutella, and even she gets lost in the group theatrics. In several interviews, Noe has discussed his love of dance. Not as a participant, but more as an observer. “Climax” is almost like his theatrical version of people watching. “Climax” takes that club dancing expressionism that he fondly enjoys and cranks it to 11 by throwing in drugs, blood and sex. It’s a trial by fire where the people become marionettes, with the bass puppeteering their every movement. For those who break free from the trance, they meet an untimely fate or wind up naked with an unlikely lover. It’s a true Heaven/Hell on Earth.

I felt really unsure about “Climax” as I left the theater, but I couldn’t quite narrow down much in terms of technical or storytelling complaints. The cinematography is on another level, matching the constant dance beats in the background. The soundtrack ranges from foreign EDM to more recognizable artists like Daft Punk and the Rolling Stones. I only withhold unflinching adoration for a film like this because I may believe I’m consuming something of substance while blinded by its deliciously fresh style. It’s a brisk, but bewitching film that I’m sure I’ll watch again. It’s in that second watch I’ll either find distaste or amplified admiration for Noe’s vision. Love it or hate, viewers won’t be able to shake “Climax,” much like a bad acid trip.

Film Review: “It Comes at Night”

Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott and Carmen Ejogo
Directed By: Trey Edward Shults
Rated: R
Running Time: 97 minutes
A24

Our Score: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

There are a few things that always seem to get lost in the shuffle when an apocalyptic end of the world movie is created; paranoia, hopelessness and brutally honest human emotion. Most of the time in this genre, we’re meant to jump in our seats, watch a subtle reflection of the current political climate or enjoy watching Earth devolve into a sadist’s playground. “It Comes at Night” appears to start out with one of those intentions, but as it unwinds; the movie captures the very essence of humanity’s last gasp and struggling with death.

Paul (Edgerton) keeps his at his side, having them abide by a strict set of rules. The home, deeply entrenched in the woods, is boarded up and only has one entrance/exit, two locked doors, which Paul has the only key to. Paul struggles in silence to understand his son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison), who has just witnessed his grandfather succumb to the disease that is infesting the world around them. It takes effect within 24 hours, causing the body to develop talon like boils, its host to puke ink-like blood and turn eyeballs into tar pits.

“It Comes at Night” actually begins with the arduous task of putting grandpa out of his misery. Paul has Travis come along, despite his mom questioning whether or not Travis would be ready to watch the tragic deed. As Paul takes grandpa out into the woods, digs a shallow grave, and shoots him, Travis watches in confused silence. Certainly, going through puberty is compounded by watching a loved one slowly morph into some zombie movie monster.

They don’t have long to sulk because a strange man breaks into the home, scrounging for food and water. After an extensive interrogation process by Paul, the family learns that the man, Will (Abbott), is in desperate need of assistance. His wife and child are in a different home, waiting for him to return with any signs of hope. Paul agrees to help and welcomes the family into the home, and while things may be peaceful at first, things slowly unravel.

There isn’t a lot of small-talk or meaningful conversation between characters in “It Comes at Night.” On one hand, it makes sense because there’s no reason that the people in this scenario would be regurgitating the tragic details of what they already know. So very little is learned about the actual happenings outside the world and what kind of pandemic is eating away at the Earth. On the other hand, we don’t get a sense of what characters are truly thinking since they appear to be more obsessed about what the other is plotting or contemplating. The only inner workings we get a glimpse of our Travis’ adolescent mind.

It’s clear through many of Travis’ nightmares, that the death of his grandpa, sexual frustration brought on by puberty and paranoia are creating a lethal mental cocktail. Anytime a problem arises with Will and his clan, Travis is reminded by his parents about how family comes before everyone else. Since the movie spends so much time with Travis, it creates disconnect from nearly everyone else, which can be frustrating at first, but sets up for an intense final act.

There’s no traditional resolution to “It Comes at Night,” which is both a blessing and a curse. It gives the viewer a lot to ponder and discuss, but it also leaves you with no profound message to chew on. It’s unique in its pragmatic presentation of what happens when human beings are left to their own isolationism and the overwhelming distrust that will certainly envelop society during end times. But the biggest takeaway is that we’re all afraid of dying and losing those closest to us. There’s no political or social commentary away to take from that, it’s just a universal truth.