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Five Cent Cine At Home: The Lighthouse

Available: Streaming on Amazon Prime; available for rent or purchase at Amazon, YouTube and elsewhere; see Just Watch here.

Two people who don’t get along very well are condemned to 4 weeks—and maybe more—of isolation. A bad marriage under stay-at-home restrictions in the time of coronavirus? No. Two men running a lighthouse in the 1890s on an island off the coast of New England. One of them, Thomas (Willem Dafoe), a brusque, mean-spirited, authoritarian old man, is in charge, or thinks he is—and the distinction hardly matters. The “junior man” (Robert Pattinson), perhaps in his thirties, swabs the floors, shovels coal, and cleans the exterior of the structure while suspended by ropes, all the while being called “slow” and a “dullard”—“you’ll like it cause I says you will,” shouts Thomas. While the younger man seems to be the innocent victim of an overbearing and insensitive supervisor, his changing backstory, including a stint as a lumberjack in Canada, suggests all is not as it seems.

“The Lighthouse” could be understood as a throwback to the psychological dramas of the 1940s, when Freud held sway, and to one in particular: “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), which featured three prospectors in a remote region of Mexico grappling with jealousy, suspicion, and the kind of insanity that the lust for gold can produce. There’s no money at stake in “The Lighthouse,” but like “Treasure” it has an elderly protagonist who bears responsibility for things coming apart, and like the John Huston classic, it has the mark of a father/son story. Tom is the withholding figure of paternal authority. He withholds praise for the hard work his “son” does; withholds access to the area housing the light, a space that also has a powerful sexual valence, situated as it is at the top of the phallic structure (“the light has its mysteries”). Tom even, for much of the film, refuses to use the name of his co-worker, who first asks to be called Ephraim Winslow, but is in fact also named Thomas—or Tommy. Tom will not let Tommy grow up, and the son’s resentment builds and spills out. “You’re not a captain…of this ship,” Tommy says, “or any ship,” deducing that Tom’s backstory too is likely a lie.   

Tommy has his own problems, ones largely independent of his taskmaster. Sexually frustrated, he fixates on the idea of the mermaid, hallucinating on the one hand, masturbating with a ceramic figurine, on the other…hand. He’s troubled, too, and brought to an egregious act of violence, by the hectoring seagulls that disturb his work on the lighthouse grounds—an act of violence that reveals not only the tumult within, but what he’s capable of. Tommy’s claim to be “god-fearing” is another of his fictions. Two immoral men, each with an unreliable history, cast out of time.

Two immoral men, each with an unreliable history, cast out of time.

Things might have been different had not mother nature—or the gods (possibly to avenge the death of an ominous bird)—intervened, ushering in a storm of Shakespearean proportions. Tom is the crazed King Lear—or is it Captain Ahab?—laying a curse on the seething and confused younger man, rambling and raving in a poetic tongue akin to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where another bird, in that case the albatross, found its revenge. There are a few fitful moments of physical coming together, well short of bonding, fueled by alcohol and finally by gulps of gasoline mixed with honey. But this is no buddy film.

Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke was nominated for an Oscar for his compelling framing of both the men in their constrained interiors and of the harshness of the Nova Scotia landscape.

Dramatic tension, in this tale based on true events, is heightened by the black and white palette, and by the 1:1 screen ratio of Director Robert Eggers (whose principal work has been in production design), which contains and restricts the characters, accentuating the experience of isolation. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke was nominated for an Oscar for his compelling framing of both the men in their constrained interiors and of the harshness of the Nova Scotia landscape. Dafoe (who has played more weird types than most actors) is perfect as the righteous, domineering, and unrepressed “captain.” Pattison, still remaking himself from his teen heartthrob performances in the 2008-2012 “Twilight” series and about to be Batman, projects just the right combination of hostility, angst and desperation as the repressed “wickie” who is never allowed to “work the light.”

“The Lighthouse” will appeal to moviegoers who enjoy the intimacy and confinement of the stage–and who don’t mind—or even relish—a journey to the edge of horror.

Date: 2019

3 Stars (out of 4 stars)

Director: Robert Eggers

Starring: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson, Valeriia Karaman

Oscars: Nominated for Best Achievement in Cinematography (Jarin Blaschke)

Runtime: 87 minutes

With movie theaters closed, Five Cent Cine is shifting gears. “2 film critics” will continue our usual reviewing schedule of about 3 movies per month, now labeled Five Cent Cine At Home, with all of those films available streaming or for rent or purchase. Each review will list (at the top) the source(s) for you to access the film in your own living room or bedroom.

In addition, we’ll be posting a “Streamer of the Week,” a review from our catalogue (more than 110 reviews dating to mid-2016) of a film available for streaming—a way to revisit a film you’ve already seen or to decide you would enjoy.

Also see reviews on…

Eighth Grade

The Traitor (Il Traditore)

Free Solo

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Sorry to Bother You


Hidden Figures

Ford v Ferrari

Captain Fantastic

First Cow


Ordinary Love

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Uncut Gems

Les Misérables

The Last Black Man in San Francisco



Little Women

Marriage Story

Queen & Slim

The Irishman


Cold Brook

Jojo Rabbit

Pain & Glory ( Dolor y Gloria)



Downton Abbey

Ad Astra

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

The Goldfinch

Good Boys

Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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