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Movie Review

To the bleating moan of a foghorn, two men disembark from their transporting skiff and take their station on a craggy lighthouse island off the coast of Maine.

The year is 1890.

For the next four weeks, Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow will sleep, eat, and endure rotten conditions and corrosive weather, side-by-side. Always side-by-side.

Except, of course, when it comes to their “wickie” duties.

For Ephraim—a young former lumberjack who wants a fresh start in life—those duties include meeting most of the hard-labor needs of a lighthouse. He swabs the rotting wooden surfaces, hauls the coal, stokes the furnaces, oils the mechanisms, dumps the filled-to-the-brim chamber pots.

For the wild-bearded and grizzled senior officer Thomas, however, the list of duty requirements is simpler: fix the meals, keep the aerobeacon in the lighthouse tower ever polished and lit, pass gas and give orders. There is much gas to expel. And many, many, many barked-out orders to be given and obeyed.

Of course, working a lighthouse isn’t only drudgery—at least, so says Thomas. At meal times, with a belly full of hooch and a pipe full of tobacco, there’s time for a shanty song or a seaman’s tale between bouts of flatuence.

Ephraim, however, isn’t as enamored with this crusty, swearing and snarling man as the man obviously is with himself. Aferr all, Ephraim’s the one shoveling and swabbing, painting and hauling. He’s the one being splashed in the face with a chamber pot’s contents in a strong wind.

With each passing hour, each howling storm, each ear-drum-rattling blat of the lighthouse klaxon, Ephraim’s mood grows more foul. To Ephraim’s ear, the old man’s gravelly barks become more hateful than the wind blowing ever so frequently out his other end. Things are turning more dark and inclement indoors as the rain lashes against the lighthouse cabin’s leaky roof.

Anger and excrement and bottles of booze don’t mix well on a tiny barren rock cut off from the world. Then come the storms that cut them off further, leaving them stranded beyond their planned four weeks. And the food stuffs that are ruined by seeping wet. And …

This difficult story will end at some point. It has to.

And it’s bound to end badly.

Positive Elements

Eventually Ephraim is coaxed into mumbling out his reasons for taking this difficult lighthouse post. He discloses a desire to save his wages and eventually to be able to “raise my own roof and settle down.” It’s a seemingly sensible strategy that Thomas sneers at.

Spiritual Content

Before meals Thomas raises an old seaman’s toast in a thick-accented chant. God’s name is usually mixed into that garble, generally dealing with how His hand plays a part in a sailor’s victories and plights. At one point, Thomas grows angry and curses his cabin mate. He calls out for the trident-wielding god Triton to rise up and rip Ephraim limb from limb. (Later, Ephraim sees a brief vision of such a creature, naked with blazing eyes.) Thomas also makes it clear that he believes that the “doldrums are eviler than the devil.”

There’s also a not-fully-explained spiritual element related to the lighthouse light. Thomas said that his former partner went mad when seeing “an enchantment there.” And Thomas himself appears to see something supernatural in the bright beam. And it’s hinted at that Thomas transforms into something other than human when in the light.

In fact, throughout the film Ephraim longs to get up into the locked tower to see what it is Thomas is keeping from him. And when he finally gets up there and gazes full into the aerobeacon’s brightness, the light appears to drive Ephraim into fits of screaming insanity.

Ephraim is pestered by a particular seagull that picks at his legs and taps at his window. Thomas warns the younger man, however, not to touch the seagulls because it’s believed that dead sailors’ souls return in that seabird’s form.

During these discussions of dead sailors, Thomas asks Ephraim if he’s a praying man. “I’m God-fearing, if that’s what you’re askin’,” Ephraim replies.

Sexual Content

After unrolling his mattress, Ephraim finds a roughly hewn figurine of a mermaid stuffed into a small tear in the bed roll fabric. This wooden carving comes complete with a tail and roughly defined breasts. The statue opens a door of masturbatory fantasy for the young man, which he does a couple of times (during which we hear suggestive sounds).

In one of those scenes, we see him nearly naked from the back. And the visual jumps back and forth between his reality and his imagined fantasy. In the latter, we’re shown a lifesize realistic mermaid, naked from the waist up. The camera even focuses briefly on her hybrid fish/human genitals and watches as a naked Ephraim couples with her. In a different scene, Ephraim encounters the topless mermaid outside on the rocks in front of the lighthouse. (We see him touching her body.)

Thomas has his own sexual fantasies that involve the lighthouse light. What he sees is never defined, but the man strips naked (seen from chest up) in the lighthouse and gazes with delight at the glass aerobeacon. “To ye, me beauty,” he murmurs. He later reports, “I’m d--n well wedded to this here light.” Ephraim sneaks up below the locked lighthouse beacon room and looks up through the grating floor to see a naked Thomas. (More masturbation is alluded to offscreen; bodily fluids are seen through the grating.)

While reshingling the bunkhouse roof, Ephraim peeks in to see Thomas’s bare backside. Ephraim also shovels coal barechested on a couple ocassions. And while drunk, the two men slow dance at one point, caressing each other’s shoulders. They almost kiss before breaking away.

Thomas tells a story of seducing Catholic nuns. Ephraim asks him if he felt shame when lying with the women. During a physical struggle between the men, Ephraim glances down and sees Thomas shirtless and adorned with sparkling sea shells, lying in a mermaid-like pose. He then beats the man senseless.

Violent Content

In truth, this whole film is a violent act as the two men pound at each other emotionally and verbally and then, as they swirl further and further into insanity, inevitably begin to pummel each other physically as well. Eventually they take blades to each other. Blood and gore spurts and bones crack.

A man falls down a spiraling metal staircase, his bones breaking and splintering along the way. We see a human corpse floating in the water. A lobster trap is pulled up with a severed head in it. Someone grabs a seagull and pounds the creature on a rocky surface, pulverizing its body and coating the rock with blood and guts.

Ephraim tells a story of watching another man die without offering help. Then he stole the man’s name and belongings. Someone is buried alive before being dug back up. Someone smashes his fist into a clockface, smashing the glass and cutting his hand.

Crude or Profane Language

Two f-words and five s-words are joined by a couple uses each of the words “d--n” and “b--ch.” God is combined with “d--n” more than a dozen times, and the phrase “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” is exclaimed, too.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Both men smoke regularly: Ephraim rolls and smokes cigarettes, Thomas a corn-cob pipe. Even though it’s against the lighthouse manual’s rules, Thomas drinks rum with every meal and keeps pushing Ephraim to do so as well.

Eventually, Ephraim gives in and starts drinking. After that, the men are constantly drunk, falling into everything from shanty singing and fevered dancing to bare-knuckle fist fights. They also dig up a buried case of hooch that Thomas has squirrelled away, but even that runs out in time. Then the men take to consuming coal oil mixed with honey.

Other Negative Elements

We see both men urinating into pots (with associated anatomy just off camera). And we’re shown the full chamber pot’s other floating contents as well. A drunken Ephraim keels over and vomits. The two men torment each other mentally and physically as their sanity collapses. After beating Thomas, Ephraim even ties a rope around the man’s neck and leads him around like a dog. Ephraim breaks into a cabinet.

Conclusion

Greek mythology tells of a Titan named Prometheus who was helplessly chained to a barren rock. Day after day, he is sadistically torn open anew and devoured. Agony by agony, mouthful by mouthful, day after day.

It’s fairly obvious that director Robert Eggers had that endlessly tormenting mythos in the back of his mind when crafting this sea-shanty descent of two beleaguered men into utter madness. He even presents his own fever dream version of the flesh-rending mythological tale by movie’s end.

Some will call this film an artistic study: a bizarre blending of black-and-white horror and tragedy that digs its claws into the broken and anguished human condition. But no matter how you squint your eyes and look for aesthetic value here—no matter how enamored you may initially be with its dread-soaked grey visuals and mournfully soughing sounds—the truth is that this film is itself a form of torture.

From its knotted-muscle fantasies to its drunken bloody knuckles and psychotic mental ruptures, this cinematic nor’easter is more disheartening and spiritually oppressive than nearly anything you’re apt to find on a theater screen. Considering today’s crop of films, that’s saying something.

If you’re even remotely considering this film as an evening’s entertainment, in short: don’t. There are barren rocks and torments enough.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake; Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow; Valeriia Karaman as Mermaid

Director

Robert Eggers ( )

Distributor

A24

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

October 25, 2019

On Video

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Bob Hoose

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
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This Plugged In review contains information about graphic sexual or violent content. It is not suitable for all ages. Reader discretion is advised.
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