Movie Review: “The Lighthouse”

2015’s “The Witch” was a strange and mesmerizing little film—an exceedingly slow burn set in Puritan New England, haunted by stern religiosity, madness, and the ever-present specter of the supernatural. With “The Lighthouse,” director Robert Eggers turns his talents to a different facet of the American experience: the world of smoky oil lamps, windswept islands, and ramshackle buildings hanging over the turbulent sea.

As the film opens, young drifter Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) joins old salt Thomas Wick (Willem Dafoe) to maintain an unnamed lighthouse somewhere far from shore. The two men do not take kindly to each other: Wick proves to be a stern taskmaster, chastising Winslow for the smallest infractions and demanding ever-higher standards of obedience. Above all else, Wick demands that Winslow never ascend to the summit of the lighthouse, where the lantern burns day and night. And Wick is prepared to enforce that rule with violence if necessary. (Mistrust, rage, and possible insanity follow.)

From an acting standpoint, this is superb work from both Pattinson and Dafoe (I never knew how much I wanted to see Dafoe as a gruff old sailor—particularly one who tosses around some of the most creative nautical curses I’ve ever heard). The sound design is suitably unsettling, and the film’s 1.19:1 aspect ratio and black-and-white cinematography further evoke the surreal. It’s not exactly the most accessible movie I’ve ever seen—if you thought “The Witch” was slow-paced, “The Lighthouse” is positively languid—but it’s nonetheless effective.

It’s hard to call this genre horror; on a thematic level, both “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” are in some sense deconstructions of American history. Both films tap into iconic aspects of the American story, narratives previously immortalized in prior works: if “The Witch” unfolds against the backdrop of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” “The Lighthouse” channels the ethos of Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” In that spirit, “The Witch” was suffused with concepts of purity and sin; “The Lighthouse,” in turn, wrestles with man’s response to the incomprehensible.

But where postmodernity sees deconstruction as as a disclosure of hidden human structures of power and oppression, Eggers’s deconstruction occurs on a deeper level. Rather than simply re-narrating the stories we tell ourselves, Eggers questions whether they were our stories in the first place. His movies are about the otherworldly forces creeping around the edges of experience, the liminal spaces where the human order blurs into the wild and pagan. On this view, it’s the story of civilization that’s actually aberrational; the eerie is the “natural state of things.”

As I’ve written before, this is a very old—one might even say premodern—view of the cosmos, one in which human ingenuity has little purchase. Indeed, “The Lighthouse” squarely sets up this dilemma: Wick is a man of ritual and superstition, and Winslow is a man of procedures and “reason.” Only one of them ends up vindicated.

Like the cramped cottage rooms it depicts, “The Lighthouse” is the sort of thing that some will observe and wonder what kind of person could find it appealing. It’s vague, ambiguous, and full of sturm und drang. And to be sure, this is indeed  a movie for a very particular sort of person—one willing to endure long stretches of strange imagery and atmospheric world-building in the hope of an effective payoff. On that score, though, it really does succeed tremendously. 

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Posted by on October 17, 2019 in Historical


Movie Review: “Joker”

Among all comic book villains, none is as iconic as the Joker. The character has come a long way since his Cesar Romero incarnation: Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, and Jared Leto have all taken their respective turns as the Clown Prince of Crime. This time around, Joaquin Phoenix (perhaps best known for his appearance as evil emperor Commodus in “Gladiator”) dons the clown makeup and purple suit, in a drama that plenty of critics have already denounced as the stuff of mass shootings.

For a variety of reasons, I tend to think this says more about the critics than about the film.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is a fortysomething loner in Gotham City who scrapes by at a rent-a-clown agency while caring for his aging mother. Fleck dreams of being a standup comedian, but suffers from severe depression and a neurological condition that causes fits of uncontrollable laughing. Day by day, Fleck’s life goes steadily downhill: he is assaulted by street toughs, fired from his job after acquiring a gun to protect himself, abandoned by his caseworker following social-services cuts, and mocked on national television after an unfortunate comedy club appearance. When a knot of young financiers attacks him (purely for kicks and giggles) on a late-night train, Fleck finally snaps. Out comes the gun, and a legendary villain is born.

As should be clear, director Todd Phillips’ Joker bears little resemblance—beyond the most superficial aesthetic one—to the classic comic-book character. Whether appearing as the pure nihilist of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” the lascivious tactician of Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke,” the quasi-demonic specter of Grant Morrison’s “Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth,” or the Ed Gein-influenced psychopath of DC’s “New 52” comics, the Joker has always been an agent of chaos rather than its product. This Joker is Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” run through the filter of Chris Arnade’s recent book “Dignity”—the American “forgotten man” turned vengeful.

In light of this, the political valence of “Joker” is not readily characterized as left-wing or right-wing. To be sure, the film can be read as a straightforward tale of class struggle (there’s plenty of Occupy-inflected imagery to go around). But in mayoral candidate Thomas Wayne’s denunciations of the angry and disadvantaged as “clowns,” it’s not hard to hear him calling them a “basket of deplorables,” or see his retinue as a mass of prosperous elites sneering at those who struggle with unemployment, mental health, drugs, and broken communities. The movie, in short, is the most curious of things: a genuinely populist take on the Batman mythology.

Certainly it’s not the first to float these questions. After all, both “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” feature villains who are, in some sense, casualties of Tony Stark’s industrial empire. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” traces its central conflict—must power always be accountable to the masses?—back to the massive carnage that closed out “Man of Steel.” And Amazon Prime’s television series “The Boys” is built around the vindictive victims of superheroes’ casually destructive escapades. But none of those projects are truly willing to interrogate the questions they raise: Tony Stark remains a hero who never has to say he’s sorry.

By contrast, “Joker” actually commits to its populist premise rather than simply flirting with it.  The film isn’t forced to abandon its ethos in favor of a fiery superhero smackdown designed to appeal to global audiences: rather, its climax is a chillingly plausible crescendo of mass madness, an upsurge of merciless violence directed against a coddled elite. If “The Dark Knight Rises” raised the specter of the French Revolution, “Joker” evokes the Russian.

And yet none of this ever amounts to a glorification or celebration of violence. “Joker” is instead an interrogation of the roots of violence, the abuse and drugs and family breakdown and other conditions that might lead someone to conclude that they have nothing left to lose. I tend to think that the “Joker” backlash is rooted less in fear of “copycat killings” (nothing about the movie glamorizes murder) than in the fact that the film unflinchingly depicts these conditions, and asks the audience whether, under the right circumstances, mightn’t they go a little crazy, too?

This is not a question easily answered, because deep down, one knows that the breakdown on display here isn’t strictly attributable to an uncaring government or an untreated illness. That’s because what Fleck clearly craves, more than anything else, is dignity—to be seen as a person of value despite his weaknesses. In the wake of his first killing, Fleck muses, “In my whole life, I didn’t know if I even really existed. But I do. And people are starting to notice.” Only in blood, and in the awful maelstrom of the mob, can Fleck find the actualization and community he craves. Nothing else in his life offers hope.

Here, more than any ambient creepiness or startling moments of violence, is where the real power of “Joker” lies: in its haunting study of true alienation, and how easily those of us who live fortunate lives overlook the ones who don’t fit our narrow standards of propriety. Indeed, the film left me with a question that has troubled me ever since: If Arthur Fleck walked into my church—unsettling laugh, strange behaviors, and all—would I look on him with kindness? Would I see, in the Joker himself, the image of God?

I’d like to say yes. I hope I can say yes. But I don’t know. Nor, I suspect, do most of us.

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Posted by on October 6, 2019 in Thrillers

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