Film Critic

Chuck Koplinski is The News-Gazette's film critic. His email is chuckkoplinski@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter (@ckoplinski).

SR The Lighthouse

Willem Dafoe, left, and Robert Pattinson are shown in scene from 'The Lighthouse' (2019).

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If nothing else, Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” stands as proof that the director’s debut feature, the stunning and disturbing “The Witch,” was no fluke.

An ambitious slow-burn shocker propelled by two powerhouse performances and a sense of near-palpable dread, this sophomore feature confirms that Eggers is a filmmaker worth watching as he sheds the conventions of the horror genre to produce a timely and powerful tale of a man that succumbs to the toxic nature of his environment, prompting the dark part of his nature to take hold and lead him to ruin.

Set in the late 1800s, two men have been sent to watch over and maintain a remote lighthouse off the coast of Maine. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is an old tar who’s lost his sea legs, becoming an expert on the beacons used to keep sailors safe. He knows all there is to know about the workings of a lighthouse and suffers no fools, which his young cohort, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), happens to be. As his charge stumbles about, making one mistake after another, Wake rules with an iron hand, shaming his coworker into doing his duty.

However, the isolation of the island draws these opposites together, resulting in an odd friendship. While Wake loosens up a bit and indeed praises Winslow at times, he refuses to let the rookie ascend to where the large light itself is. Meanwhile, Winslow begins to see and hear things (Was that a mermaid?) that defy explanation. Is he losing his mind? Is this an effect of the tainted water he’s drinking? Or is there something else afoot?

Eggers employs a claustrophobic aesthetic throughout as he and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke use an antiquated, narrow 1.19:1 aspect ratio to create a nearly square image. This is an obvious, and initially distracting, tool to underscore the sense of isolation and entrapment the characters are experiencing, yet it does prove effective, the viewer adjusting to this manipulation thanks in large part to the compelling narrative.

Eggers further divides the screen with on-set objects and shrinks the visible space even more with his aggressive use of shadowing throughout. There’s far more darkness than light used here, and while it serves to cut the characters off from one another, thematically, it speaks to the madness that threatens to swallow up the characters at every turn.

Allusions to classic mythology and nautical superstitions abound, as the film is rife with portends of doom that are delivered with grave solemnity by Wake and brashly brushed aside by Winslow. In a sense, the film plays out like a conflict between ancient beliefs and fact-based modernism. Wake’s sage pieces of advice have the weight of belief based on experience, yet the young, ignorant Winslow disbelieves, failing to heed various warnings and so-called “tall tales” to his detriment.

As the latter’s sanity begins to slip, Eggers masterfully builds a sense of dread that we know will lead to a big reveal that doesn’t disappoint. The climax is both inventive and surprising, in keeping with the sort of smart filmmaking the director is quickly becoming associated with.

An atmospheric masterpiece, this examination of existential dread that threatens to overtake us at any moment is an example of the kind of intelligent, innovative filmmaking that should be cherished and championed. “The Lighthouse” proves to be one of the year’s great movies and further evidence that Eggers is not simply a filmmaker to watch, but one with a finger on the pulse of our times.

Also new in theaters

Norton can’t get out of his own way in ‘Motherless Brooklyn’ (★★½ out of four stars). Passion projects are a difficult thing in that they often lack perspective. Case in point: Edward Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel, a project the actor has reportedly been trying to bring to the screen for nearly two decades.

You have to admire his tenacity and bravado concerning the project as he’s not only starring in the film but has also written the screenplay and is directing. To give credit where it’s due, Norton accords himself admirably on all fronts as the movie is a handsome production with spot-on production values recreating the New York City of the 1950s, while he continues to impress with his acting.

Yet it’s the structure of the film and the approach to Norton’s character that nearly leads to its undoing as “Brooklyn” is far too long and meandering to justify its big reveal, while the tone and purpose of its protagonist are questionable.

In 1950s New York, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) operates a sketchy private-detective firm and runs afoul of some unsavory types that gun him down. Who they are or why they would commit such an act is the mystery that drives the movie, as fellow detective Lionel Esso (Norton) takes it upon himself to solve his mentor’s murder, a quest that will uncover widespread corruption at the highest level of the city’s government.

As the web of deceit unfolds, Norton’s narrative through-lines become murkier as the purpose of certain characters is never truly explained, while one or two red herrings prove frustrating. And therein lies the problem with the film. It’s obvious Norton is too close to the material, far too enamored with it to cut it down to make it more compelling and brisker. Without question, the movie is a compelling concoction of period design and attitude, but far too often, the story sags when it should pop. A pair of outside, objective eyes would have benefited this project greatly.

Equally troubling is the approach Norton takes to his character, who happens to have Tourette’s syndrome, replete with physical tics and verbal outbursts. Lethem’s intent was obviously to create a portrait of a man struggling to overcome this condition in order to function admirably, and while this may play well on the page, on screen, there are moments when Esso’s affliction is used for cheap laughs, while his condition comes off as far too convenient once certain clues fall into place.

In the end, the whole production reeks of being Oscar bait for Norton’s multi-pronged efforts.

Still, the fine cast keeps us hooked until the end. Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a fierce performance as an activist lawyer who’s sucked into these shenanigans and winds up being a love interest for Esso, a conceit that fails to hold water. In addition to Willis, Bobby Cannavale makes the most of his moments as one of Minna’s partners, while Willem Dafoe contributes his trademark manic gravitas. Most impressive is Alec Baldwin as Moses Randolph, a city planner at the center of the mystery who will let nothing stand in the way of his grand plans.

The difference between this and “Chinatown,” which Norton is obviously hoping his pet project will be favorably compared to, is a matter of execution. Roman Polanski employed a deft touch in service of Robert Towne’s smart screenplay that didn’t pander to the audience. Norton’s approach does not act in service to the story and instead calls attention to itself. This “Hey, look at me” quality prevents “Brooklyn” from being the classic its director so desperately wants it to be.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Koplinski on Twitter (@ckoplinski). He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.