The Lighthouse (2019)

Watching Robert Eggers movies at a corporate multiplex feels like getting away with something perverse. Eggers has seemingly signed a deal with The Devil (A24) that allows him access to wide audiences for every aggressively Not For Everyone idea he has; the only catch is that the rooms these niche monstrosities play in are plagued by incrementally audible discomfort. As with The Witch, the audience I watched Eggers’s latest film with stormed out of the theater in a disgruntled huff – muttering variations of “What the fuck was that?” amongst themselves on the trail to the parking lot. To be fair, their confusion & frustration is entirely justified, as The Lighthouse is the kind of artsy-fartsy indulgence that you’d usually have to go out of your way to see at a tiny indie theater at the edge of town. A black & white period drama crammed into a squared-off aspect ratio, The Lighthouse mostly functions as an unholy, horned-up mashup of Guy Maddin & HP Lovecraft. It has no business sharing suburban megaplex marquees with the superhero spectacle of the week; at least not before earning the perceived legitimacy of Oscar Buzz. We’ve designated an entire festival-to-VOD distribution template to keep this kind of challenging, deranged nonsense out of the eyeline of the unsuspecting public. Watching Eggers’s films break away from its designated playpen to cause havoc in the burbs feels like cheering on a puppy that runs across the dinner table at an aristocratic banquet. The more people protest the funnier it becomes.

That’s not to say this is a stuffy Academic art piece without traditional entrainment value. The Lighthouse’s tight frame is packed to the walls with more sex, violence, and broad toilet humor than you’d typically expect from high-brow festival circuit Cinema. If you can push past the initial barriers of Eggers’s patient pacing & period-specific dialogue, the movie is a riot. Willem Dafoe & Robert Pattinson costar as a lighthouse-keeper odd couple who gradually grow insane with hate & lust for each other as the only company available on an isolated island rock. What’s “actually happening” in the story is deliberately obscured, as the combative pair’s descent into drunken madness continually disorients the audience to the point where it’s impossible to get our sea legs. The back half of the film is a roaring storm where time, place, and meaning are all drowned out by the two bearded seamen’s passionate clash of wills, and the film becomes more of a deranged experiment in mood & atmosphere than anything resembling linear storytelling. Still, their horniness for each other (and maybe-fictional mermaids), their constant farting in each other’s faces, and their drunken penchant for fisticuffs means this is never a dry academic exercise, despite Eggers’s painstakingly researched dialogue that makes it sound like an ancient, cursed novel. He even buried the title card that announces those research efforts deep into the credits instead of allowing it to immediately undercut the impact of the film’s transcendent conclusion, fixing the one problem I personally had with The Witch.

As delightfully bizarre & idiosyncratic as The Lighthouse can be, I don’t know that I can claim that there’s nothing else like it. Between The Forbidden Room, Cold Skin, and my beloved The Wild Boys you could piece together a neat little modern canon that this antique fever dream is nestled in, even if it is one of the clear standout specimens of that crop. The main difference to me is the value of the A24 marketing & distribution machine behind it, as the other movies of this cursed deep-sea ilk only made it to tiny arthouse theaters nearby, if they played on the big screen at all. The Lighthouse features two recognizable movie stars devouring scenery & each other at top volume. It’s like watching two Daniel Day-Lewises battling to drink each other’s milkshakes at the seaport to Hell. Even if I was the only audience member present who was tickled by those handsome seaside ghouls’ drunken struggles with merfolk, one-eyed seagulls, and divine lightbulbs, it was still heartwarming to see those perverse monstrosities eat up screen space at a corporate multiplex. The fact that the movie is so darkly fun on top of being such an obscured art piece only makes it feel like more of an outright prank on Normie America. In an age when tentpole franchise filmmaking is quarantining most of these bizarro art pieces to the straight-to-VOD wastelands, I’m always going to root for the stray beast that breaks free & runs wild – even if all it really has to say is “Having roommates sucks. And seagulls suck too.”

-Brandon Ledet

High Life (2019)

Oddly enough, two nights after I went and saw Knife+Heart, I took in a screening of High Life, the new English-language sci-fi horror film from French director Claire Denis, the visionary behind Un beau soleil intérieur and Beau travail. When asked by a friend how I liked them, I said “I loved Knife+Heart! It’s so French!” followed immediately by “I hated High Life! It’s so French!”

CW/TW: Discussion of on screen sexual assault. That’s way more of a warning than this movie gives you. Also, you know, there’s a scene in this movie where a female character rapes a sedated man to acquire his ejaculate, then squats and drips it out into her open palm so she can impregnate someone else. You know, for science.

In its defense, High Life is not a bad movie. It’s beautifully framed and edited, and the extended lingering shots of both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic–from the depths of space and all the beautiful delights and terrors that it contains to close-ups of eyes and protracted shots of delicate droplets of water on leaves—make for a beautiful experience on the big screen. But there’s also sexual assault aplenty, shot with the same cold indifference, not to mention flat performances from almost every member of the cast, all of whom you’ve seen give stronger, bolder performances in other things.

High Life tells (in non-chronological order) the story of Monte (Robert Pattinson), a mostly unwilling astronaut on a damned voyage. A convict serving a life sentence, he and other young prisoners in the same situation are placed aboard a utilitarian space ship for the purpose of determining if black holes can be used to provide a source of renewable energy. The captain, Chandra (Lars Eidinger) is the only person who is not a felon, and the life support on the ship demands he make a log entry every 24 hours, or the crew will die. The real authority, however, is Dibs (Juliette Binoche), a medical officer who killed her own children and now oversees the regulation of sedatives among the crew and is engaged in her own side experiment to try and create a perfect offspring, although her efforts have largely been in vain and none of the children survive, even if they make it to term. Members of the crew use “The Box,” a masturbatorium, to relieve their pent-up sexual frustrations, and Dibs collects DNA from all aboard as part of her “scientific” enquiry, most notably Ettore (Ewan Mitchell). Other crew members/prisoners of note include Tcherny (André Benjamin/3000) and Boyse (Mia Goth, of Suspiria); Tcherny is Monte’s only real friend, who reminisces about life on earth and the family he left behind, while Boyse is a deeply troubled and unpleasant woman who is the first and only mother on the ship to successfully bear a child, as the result of two separate sexual assaults.

I’m really not quite sure what to make of this movie. Were it directed by a man, we could call this film troublingly sexist and degrading and call it a day, but with Claire Denis at the helm, it’s not so easy. A lot of this is bound up in the treatment of Boyse, and the questions that revolve around her. She is utterly unlikable in every imaginable way, which speaks to Goth’s range, considering how much I enjoyed her turn in Suspiria. There’s something to admire in her declaration that “[her] body obeys [her]” after Ettore sexually assaults her, but we never learn what her crime was that landed her in prison and thus on this shit detail in the first place, and her willingness to kill Nansen (Agata Buzek), who attempted to come to her defense, further obscures any possibility that we could really understand Boyse. She’s more than just an animal running on instinct, but she’s wild in a way that makes it impossible to understand her actions or desires.

In addition to being non-linear, the film is deliberately obtuse and obscure when revealing details. No one on the ship ever recounts why they ended up there; we only learn of this from a brief scene aboard a train in which a young reporter interviews a man credited only as “Indian Professor” (Victor Banerjee). Very little takes place planetside: this Professor rides inside of a train, two children play with a dog that later dies, and Ettore and Boyse are also seen riding on the tops of a train (presumably not the same one but who knows) while Monte discusses what it was like to be a societal castoff and outcast. The traintop scenes are shot in the first person, but the audience is never given clarification of whether these are Monte’s memories or not, or if they are projections of his assumptions; after all, we later learn that the crime for which he is incarcerated occurred when he was a child, so it makes very little sense for him to be free and enjoying the lifestyle of a crusty wanderer as a young adult. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it shouldn’t matter. But to me, it does.

At a very cursory glance, the film seems to be attempting to create a narrative about the dehumanizing treatment of the incarcerated, perhaps weaving that together with a statement about overpopulation or resource allotment, or even eugenics. As a statement about any of these topics, the film is fairly shallow. Is the film about the fact that all human progress in some way relies upon exploitation of the labor of a lower class? Is it about historical precedent of experimentation on prisoners? Is it about countering the idealized speculative fiction narratives of Star Trek and its cohort that point toward a lofty future of post-scarcity humanitarian egalitarian utopiae by showing that space travel and technological advancement will really only show us our true, animalistic selves? Yes! To all those things! Maybe(?)! It’s also about 110 minutes long, but that still doesn’t really tell you anything, does it?

That’s what I mean by the film being “too French.” High Life is has awful lot of Big Ideas, but not much in the way of Big Statements. It would be intellectually dishonest to say “This film does not demonize the prison system,” because it clearly wants to and expects the audience to fill in those gaps; at the same time, it would be a more straightforward lie to say “This film demonizes the prison system,” because it never really does. We see that there are outright dangerous people in the system, like Dibs, as well as seemingly good people like Monte (it helps that his crime was one of passion that was in defense of a helpless animal, which is almost laughable in its lack of subtlety), and others who were perhaps decent but were pushed beyond their limits as the result of the dehumanization of incarceration, like Boyse and perhaps Ettore (I’m not saying that Ettore’s aggressive assault of Boyse isn’t morally reprehensible or that it’s an unavoidable consequence of being involuntarily celibate, just that the film might be making that argument). Is Denis’s thesis that even good and moral people will become monsters in a captive prison state? If so, it follows that murder and rape are inevitabilities in such a broken system, absolving the individual from both agency and responsibility, which is grotesque. The only person that we see rise above these moral lapses is Monte, whose only stated difference from his shipmates is the fact that he is voluntarily celibate, going so far as to even abstain from the dubious pleasures of “The Box.”

I’ve never seen any of Denis’s other work. The friend with whom I saw this movie is very pro-Denis; when I asked if he wanted to check this one out, he cited her as his favorite living director. He was rather pleased with this cinematic experience, noting that she had directed his favorite movie about cannibalism, which led to me asking about Raw (we also saw that one together), and he made the statement that Raw wouldn’t exist without Denis. That’s all well and good, but as my first foray into her oeuvre, I’m not sure that I’m impressed. The musical score is haunting, every actor gives a great performance, and many of the visuals are pure visual art, but on the whole, this is a film that I’m not sold on, and I’m not sure I’m sold on Denis. Looking back over her filmography, she’s made multiple films with Vincent Gallo, and even wanted him to star in this one, which makes me question a lot about her instincts (if you’ve ever accidentally swallowed something that had a label on it that says “Induce vomiting if consumed,” here’s a self-aggrandizing, Trump-worshipping essay by Gallo to get you started; my favorite commentary on it came from The Playlist, which wrote “[we] reached out to Roger Ebert for comment, [then] remembered that Roger Ebert passed away in 2013, and that Gallo is picking a fight with a dead film critic.”).

I’m not here to pick fights with anybody. Honestly, I’ve given a lot of other films credit that they didn’t deserve. But this one? Not so much. Its unimaginative plot is given the semblance of originality through an irregular nonlinear narrative structure, but that doesn’t make up for making a film that is a sad slog through human misery.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Good Time (2017)

I had no idea who up & coming filmmakers The Safdie Brothers were before seeing their most recent collaboration, Good Time, at the cinema, but by the tail end of the opening credits I was already mesmerized by the talent of Benny Safdie in particular. It wasn’t the fact that Benny co-directed (along with brother Josh Safdie, who penned the screenplay) while also making the risky decision to play a mentally disabled thief in one of the central roles that won me over as a fan. It was actually Benny’s sound editing credit that most caught my attention. From the opening frames of the film it’s immediately apparent that the sound design, which heavily features a synth-soaked score from weirdo pop act Oneohtrix Point Never, is the film’s driving force, the main source of its tension & eerie beauty. In Good Time, even the beautiful things are deeply ugly and the way The Safdie Brothers drown their audience in a nonstop deluge of oppressive sounds is just as painful as it is divinely transcendent. Even if every other element at play were dull or uninspired, the film’s synthy soundscape would be enough on its own to push the film into the Best of the Year conversations, which is not too shabby for a couple directors who’ve seemingly come out of nowhere (i.e. documentary filmmaking).

Robert Pattinson stars as an irredeemable scumbag who lands his mentally disabled brother (Benny Safdie) in jail after a botched bank heist. Good Time mostly follows this despicable anti-hero down a complex labyrinth where he schemes to retrieve his brother from police custody. In his desperation he fails to plan ahead for future mishaps, barely evading police custody at every turn himself as he inches closer to retrieving his brother. Any shred of sympathy for Pattinson’s bank-robbing underdog is near-impossible to hold onto as he consistently steps all over old women, children, people of color, and the mentally ill in his single-minded quest to break his brother out. Occasionally this monstrously selfish mission is interrupted by tangents like a long monologue about the worst acid trip in history or an especially unhinged performance from Jennifer Jason Leigh as a wealthy heiress with a violent chemical imbalance, but Pattinson’s scumbag lead will only pay attention to those distractions for as long as it takes him to figure out a way to exploit them. Like Gravity or Mad Max: Fury Road, Good Time is composed entirely of a series of obstacles. There’s an intense moral conundrum at the core of the plot where you want to see the lead succeed in saving his brother from a prison system he’s not mentally equipped to navigate, but also want him to fail for the sake of the marginalized people he hurts along the way. There’s hardly time to wrestle with that conflict in the moment, however, since each obstacle pummels the screen in rapid succession with full, unforgiving force.

Good Time is essentially a mutated version of Refn’s Drive with all of the sparkling romance thoroughly supplanted with dispiriting grime. Filtering an old-fashioned heist plot through Oneohtrix Point Never’s blistering synths and the neon-soaked cinematography of Sean Price Williams (who also shot Queen of Earth) sounds like it’d be a blast, but The Safdie Brothers employ those electric lights & sounds for a much more grueling purpose. Occasionally, Good Time will introduce a stray element of dangerous fun, like an amusement park funhouse or a Sprite bottle full of LSD, but mostly the directors allow their documentary work to inform the tone of the picture. Good Time is defined less by neon glamor than it is soaked in the economy-driven discomfort of state-sanctioned psychoanalysis sessions or the cold glow of television-lit hospital rooms. There’s deeply uncomfortable sexual & racial context to most of the main character’s crimes, but there’s also an economic desperation in his acts of theft, kidnapping, and breaking & entering that inform his decisions to commit them. In one telling scene, he pauses to watch an episode of the 90s reality show Cops, which similarly repackaged systemic economic hardship as an entertainment commodity, only to be disgusted by the pain on display on the screen. Good Time aims to disgust & discomfort in that same way, offering all of the surface entertainment of a film like Drive without softening its real life implications with the fantasy of movie magic the way that the film does so well.

If nothing else, Good Time is an excellent case for each of its individual players as creative powerhouses to be reckoned with. Jennifer Jason Leigh has already established herself as an actor to beware in titles like The Hateful Eight & eXistenZ, so Robert Pattinson’s role here works much better as a breakout calling card performance (much more so than his own Cronenberg vehicle, Cosmopolis), as despicable as it is. The Safdie Brothers also stand a chance to make names for themselves as actors, writers, and directors in what has to be their widest release to date, especially in the brazen way they dare to punish their newfound audience. If Good Time works as a showcase for any one in element in particular, however, its effect is most heavily weighted in its attention to sound. Benny Safdie’s masterful integration of the tireless Oneohtrix Point Never synths in the diegetic sounds of Good Time‘s grimy crime world environments is truly one of the great marvels of the year, something that deserves to be experienced as big and as loud as possible.

-Brandon Ledet

Cronenberg, Luxury Cars, and the End of the World

EPSON MFP image

I’m going to try to keep this short & reductive, so as not to get unnecessarily mean. There was a weird detail to our December Movie of the Month, the apocalyptic Canadian black comedy Last Night, that reminded me to finally check out a work I’ve been putting off for years. However, much like how our conversation around the Laura Dern black comedy Citizen Ruth lead me to finally pulling the trigger on David Lynch’s Inland Empire only to find it an exhaustingly ugly, empty exercise in art film pretension, Last Night similarly lead me astray. In the film, cult Canadian director David Cronenberg plays a distressed business man who spends his (and everyone else’s) last day alive at the office, making sure things run smoothly in the world’s final moments before its mysterious doomsday mechanism arrives. It’s when Cronenberg’s character, conveniently named David, leaves the office that Last Night‘s scenario begins to feel eerily familiar. David calmly navigates the world-crumbling chaos & riotous hooliganism taking over Toronto from the comfort of his expensive-looking luxury car. Watching this unfold, I thought I had accidentally entered some kind of time loop, as it’s this exact scenario that Cronenberg directs Twilight vet & honorary Death Grips member Robert Pattinson through in his 2012 film Cosmopolis. The major difference there is that in Last Night this is a single detail in a large, thematically fulfilling tapestry, while in Cosmopolis it’s the entire exhaustingly cold, empty journey.

I’ve had a DVD copy of Cosmopolis lurking in my to-watch pile since the mass Blockbuster Video close-out sales of 2013. I was smart to stay far away as long as I could resist. I’m not at all hostile towards the basic idea of a feature length film about Robert Pattinson venturing across town in a limousine solely to get a haircut. After all, I was fairly ecstatic about the film Locke, in which Tom Hardy makes a series of phone calls to orchestrate a concrete pour from the driver’s seat of a car. Cosmopolis had a lot more going on than Locke in terms of set pieces & range of characters; Pattinson occasionally leaves the relative safety if his “office” limo to visit a basketball court or a bookstore or, of course, a barber shop. The purpose of the film’s dialogue is much more difficult to pin down, though, aiming more for philosophical musings on existentialism and capitalist vampirism than any linear narrative. It was all white noise to me, recalling the empty-headed speculation of Southland Tales without the energy or humor. With the detached coldness of an absurdist stage play or a going-through-the-motions table reading, Cosmopolis provides very little for its audience to hold onto. It has some interesting cultural context, considering how it’s dead rat-brandishing protesters that surround the all-important office limo mirror the time’s Occupy movement and I’ll admit that Pattinson is entertaining enough to carry his beyond-demanding lead role. It just ultimately signified nothing to me, despite the fact that I was very much positive on Cronenberg’s similarly detached Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars. Don’t ask me why that is, because I honestly have no clue.

I’m not sure that Cronenberg’s apocalyptic car ride in Last Night influenced his choices in directing Cosmopolis in any way. Not only was the latter film adapted from a Don DeLillo-penned novel, there are some pretty major differences between his character’s business man coldness and Robert Pattinson’s. Last Night‘s business dude seems to be a kind, gentle man despite the emotionless way Cronenberg portrays him. Cosmopolis‘s protagonist, by contrast, is a heartless brute & a money-grubbing sociopath, making the film feel like Gossip Girl’s Chuck Bass: The Movie. In that case, the world is crumbling because of a man-made financial crisis; in Last Night we don’t know why the world is ending, just the humanist ways it’s many characters grieve its loss. When Last Night ends we see strangers comfort each other & fight through personal insecurities to achieve intimate, emotional connections in their final moments. When Robert Pattinson finally reaches the barber in Cosmopolis, he gets a terrible, asymmetric haircut. I’ll leave it to you to guess which result I found more satisfying and to draw connections on why Cronenberg would be attracted to two disparate, dialogue-heavy projects in which wealthy businessmen calmly drive through a crumbling society in the comfort of a luxury vehicle. In the mean time I’ll be trying to forget the frustration & boredom I suffered when I finally pushed play on Cosmopolis . . . or eagerly awaiting the end of the world. Whichever comes first would be fine.

For more on December’s Movie of the Month, the apocalyptic black comedy Last Night, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its studio comedy equivalent Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012), and last week’s gaze into the bright explosions of its Michael Bay contemporary, Armageddon (1988).

-Brandon Ledet