The Lighthouse & The Laundromat, Reviewed
November 4, 2019
A look at the latest efforts from Robert Eggers and Steven Soderbergh
reepy animals and claustrophobia. Are these the secrets to writer-director Robert Eggers’ success? In his first feature film, The Witch (2016), the
filmmaker plopped us in the center of a wintry New England homestead in the middle of the 1600s, where something very bad appeared to be brewing but from where there also seemed no quick escape. Unease, then violence, bubbles up. A billy goat named Black Phillip roamed the property like a banshee hungrily waiting for death. He seemed to know something we didn’t. The ensuing mayhem — was he somehow its cause?
In Eggers’ exceptional second directing effort, The Lighthouse (2019), this time it’s a feisty one-eyed seagull often contributing to the tension in the air, heavy enough as is since the movie, also set in a different century, is confined to an island so minuscule that if someone preferred to call it a rock they wouldn’t be wrong. Characters could not run from their troubles in The Witch. And they certainly can’t in The Lighthouse, with the surrounding ocean so choppy and without
rescue coming for at least a month. If you have the gall to attempt to dip early, you can try with a canoe kept in a shed by the shore. But the water we see in The Lighthouse is forever like the kind sailors worry will come later in the day after a red-skied morning. Unless you’re on a suicide mission, stay away.
But to be a character in The Lighthouse is to realize, after making yourself at home on the island as best as you can, that agreeing to work here was sort of like a suicide mission in the first place. The film stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as lighthouse keepers just starting their contract period. They play Ephraim Winslow and Tom Wake, respectively. The island has nothing on it, really, except for its lighthouse and mobs of seagulls. Wake, who has experience doing this kind of thing, will, as he puts it, tend to the light. Winslow, decades younger and here mostly because no jobs for which he’s been recently hired pan out, is delegated to taking on basic chores: sweeping and mopping the floors, shoveling coal into fireplaces, scrubbing metallic surfaces until they gleam. Wake is talkative and more often than not cantankerous. Winslow is guarded and regularly irritated by Wake, whom he finds pushy and odd. The men will only be at the island for four weeks — presumably, duos go in shifts — but their early-on disagreements foreshadow something catastrophic. An alarm bell rings in us when Wake tells us that the last person who had Winslow’s job lost their mind, then died. Then our intuition is set alight when Wake says Winslow’s predecessor suffered from strange visions — all of which sound just like the ones Wake had himself in a previous scene.
In The Lighthouse, it will be both men who lose their minds, not just the lowlier of the two. The movie, about two hours, almost-giddily watches as their sanity slowly and then treadmill-fast slips. The single location, paired with visual motifs of mermaids and of course light, hint that this all is allegorical — though I’m not sure now, and maybe never, of what exactly this all is an allegory for.
It doesn’t matter if a deeper meaning exists under The Lighthouse’s simple but wide-open premise, though. Like forebears Persona (1966) and Sleuth (1972), other dynamic-duo-driven psychological thrillers (Persona is even shot in a similarly sinister black and white), what makes it exhilarating are its performances, and how its director dresses them up. Dafoe often reminds us of a feral dog or a pitchfork-tailed demon. When he goes on a vicious tirade (a repeat offense in the movie), we almost wait for foam to start forbidding him from speaking midway through a given monologue. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shoots him in these moments as if he were a mad villain played by Lon Chaney or someone from his era’s ilk. He's a phantasmagoric sort of unhinged.
Pattinson’s work here has a more prominent crescendo to it: he goes from a quiet man who’s learned to internalize his torment to lit-up Molotov cocktail of a man. By the movie’s end he’s so psychologically and emotionally worn thin that we figure we could tear him up like paper if we tried. Pattinson’s newly thrilling career has mostly comprised cool, privately pained performances, with moments of outbursts, like in 2017’s lip-lickingly unbalanced Good Time. With The Lighthouse Pattinson fashions himself into a doyen of the unglued acting job. Sometimes what he does here has flashes of Isabelle Adjani in Possession (1981), who memorably did a hell of a job thrashing and screaming in a cage of a subway station in one climactic moment.
One of the best things about The Witch was how it looked. Eggers abstained from using patently artificial light in his shots, preferring things look as they might have if we, too, were a pilgrim trying to survive the winter as evil slinked in the shadows. The stylistic choice benefitted the movie, and in The Lighthouse, which is shot in a swampy black and white, its aspect ratio boxy, Eggers’ way of shooting is a draw, too. Two films in he’s proven himself as adept a storyteller as a visualist: he’s preternaturally in tune with how much a difference how a movie looks can make in how effectively it can bury itself in us. The visuals of The Lighthouse make it come across as a contorted tale of folklore come to life. But in moments it also looks like a silent movie, particularly when its actors are shot in close-up. It seemed plausible to me that in making The Lighthouse Eggers was perhaps inspired by Benjamin Christensen or Carl Theodor Dreyer — filmmakers who made black and white and/or sepia tone and limited settings work in conjunction with each other and instill in us a nightmarish sense of unease. They created realities far removed from reality and yet found universalities that didn’t make everything feel too far away.
Unexpected about The Lighthouse is that it’s also very funny; Sean Burns of The ARTery recently and pitch-perfectly even dubbed it “a horror movie about having a roommate.” Wake’s constant farting and his repeated complaints about the messiness of the living quarters, and Winslow’s feeling that he’s doing much more for his housemate than the other way around and his disgust at Wake’s cooking, might strike notes of familiarity for anyone who’s at any point lived in a res hall, or with housemates they didn’t like but depended on. Eggers, who wrote the screenplay with his brother, Max, hits the right comic notes, but the familiarity with which they play them underscore horror.
When the horror really arrives, The Lighthouse becomes a black comedy that toasts to anyone who wishes their troubles with their freshman-year college living buddy might have reached a more cathartic (for one person, anyway) resolution. In the end, The Lighthouse is much more of a coal-black farce that knows the troubles of isolation, especially when your only companion is someone you aren’t particularly fond of. Where it goes I suppose makes it a horror movie, but Eggers cultivates such a feverish and outlandishly humorous atmosphere that, like the characters, we’re driven to a state of such overblown disbelief and sometimes shock that it almost isn’t possible to be conventionally chilled.
Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in 2019's The Lighthouse.
he Laundromat, the new Netflix movie from Steven Soderbergh, is so glib and unrelentingly didactic that I wondered, after a while, who exactly it was made for. It’s a dramatization of the chaos that predated the
Panama Papers leak, and uses a victimized stand-in (Meryl Streep, who plays two other roles, including herself, in the movie) as our way into its narrative cobweb. But the movie is so busy and unfocused while at the same time radiating I’m-smarter-than-you condescension that it starts to resemble, after a while, a lesson gone haywire by a young communications professor who uses so many anecdotes and jokes in their presentation that we lose track of the crux of what they’re trying to say after a while. The film swerves recklessly into subplot after subplot about the victims, schemers, and unwitting good guys in thrall to bad-news offshore companies. They’re broken up by grating The Big Short (2015)-style “explainers” that dirty the already brown-as-shit waters.
Soderbergh might have had a decent-enough movie had he just followed the Ellen character. Her whole thing is that she realizes that her insurance coverage has been thwarted by some shady offshore entities, then becomes an investigator mostly out of curiosity and tragedy. Had the film solely spent time with her, stockpiling suspense as she gets deeper into the conspiracy and revealing more about the dilemma faced by her and many others, it’d be both dramatically richer and undoubtedly more followable. But The Laundromat is so overpopulated with characters, words, and narrative Russian dolling that I gave up trying to keep track of what was going on, like I’d been spending all day in a corn maze in the rain alone and just realized I’d been in there for a full 24 hours. Its incomprehensibility would be a lot less grating if Soderbergh weren’t so silver-tongued about it all. His last film, this year’s sports-industry-centered High Flying Bird, was also a jargon-loving chatterbox, but at least its talkativeness was sharp, and its attitude was cool rather than smarmy. The Laundromat is the kind of movie that, if it were a person, would construct a vault but forget to also build in a code to crack or a keyhole, then pin the blame on us for not being able to open it.
The Lighthouse: A
The Laundromat: C-