At least The Witch had a narrative. Here’s where indie prestige cinema darling Robert Eggers disappears right up his own metaphor. I read afterward that certain images and shots are inspired by dark classic artworks and literature, but if you came to the film cold you’d probably have no idea of how or why.
He’s just another self-satisfied visual artiste following in the footsteps of David Lynch in creating a nightmarish vision where the auteur is the star, trying to impress other extreme cinephiles who fall at the feet of the whole Toronto/A24/Annapurna avant garde altar.
I admit that all sounds snarky, and you might get a lot more out of it than I did. There’s just no story, other than a thinly veiled character study of a man losing his mind.
It seems to be the late 19th or early 20th century and two men arrive on an island in the windswept, forbidding Atlantic Ocean, grizzled lighthouse keeper Thomas (Willem Dafoe) and his new offsider Thomas (an equally rough-hewn Robert Pattinson, furthering cementing his alt thesping credentials and making sparkly vampires an even more distant memory).
The older man is gruff, unfair, doles out ever-harder tasks, insists they toast and drink over every meal and farts constantly. The younger man just wants to do an honest day’s work and not be subjected to the constant mistrust and abuse.
After the characters are established, weird things happen, keep happening, get weirder and then the story ends. The younger Thomas finds a carved stone figurine of a mermaid and jerks off to it maniacally. Someone has visions of a real mermaid washing up on the rocky shore. A gull buzzes him while he tries to go about his duties outside, to the extent that he snaps at one point, catches it and beats it to death against the side of the latrine.
The older man tells him his predecessor went insane on the island and killed himself. He refuses to let him up into the lamp chamber, keeping the grate up to the platform locked and spending long periods of the night up there for some reason. A storm closes in which later turns out has destroyed their rations, leaving them with nothing but drink, which might only be exacerbating the hallucinatory mood. When the younger Thomas finally makes his way to the lamp to see what all the fuss has been about, Eggers is more interested in some Timothy Leary-inspired Instagram filter than resolving plot.
The visual presentation is interesting, completely in low contrast black and white and an almost square aspect ratio. Where Eggers and his DP Jarin Blaschke could have made the surroundings vast, endless and empty everything feels constrained and boxed in, an obvious nod to the circumstances, the younger man finds himself trapped in.
It also would have been an actor’s dream, only two of them alone with a director and small crew in a remote place to workshop a script that’s aeons away from prefab commercial fare. But none of that makes it any less a series of weird happenstance instead of a story, and it bored me to tears.
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