‘Why’d ya spill yer beans?’

Beauty, defiance and madness in ‘The Lighthouse’

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Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in 'The Lighthouse'
Photo by Eric Chakeen Courtesy of A24

As the story goes, the Greek titan Prometheus so loved man that he stole fire from Mount Olympus and brought it to Earth for all to use. For that theft, the allfather Zeus chained Prometheus to the rock and commanded an eagle to eat his liver for all eternity.

Ephriam Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is also bound to the rock: A desolate, primeval island off the coast of Nova Scotia circa 1890. Winslow has come to this wasteland for a four-week stint of hard labor as a wickie’s assistant. But the arrival of Winslow’s ship through the dense fog says otherwise. Only a ride from Charon would seem more foreboding.

“Wickie” is parlance for a lighthouse keeper — a protector of the flame — and on this island, that man is Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Wrinkled, bearded and full of flatulence, Wake looks a little like Sterling Hayden’s character, Roger Wade, in The Long Goodbye: An alcoholic writer in the vein of Ernest Hemingway.

There’s more than a touch of Papa Hemingway in Wake — from the ability to recite passages at the drop of a hat to constant, almost compulsive, drinking. At one point, a storm strands Wake and Winslow on the island, and they go to unearth provisions buried for just such an occasion. Does Winslow find life-sustaining food buried underground? No: just a crate of grain alcohol.

There’s a bit of Hemingway in the way director Robert Eggers tells the tale of The Lighthouse. From masculine relationships to the ability to weave old myths through new images, Eggers presents The Lighthouse as a long-lost artifact. Jarin Blaschke’s black and white cinematography is stunning, as is the constricting 1:19 aspect ratio, further isolating Winslow. Only the seagulls are there to keep him company. Wake believes each gull is the reincarnation of a deceased sailor. Be this purgatory? Possibly.

Sitting atop this desolation is a glistening beacon of light. Winslow is never allowed near the light — Wake forbids it. Yet, like a moth to the flame, Winslow cannot deny his attraction. The Sufi mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj used a similar metaphor for describing God. For Al-Hallaj, the beloved was a flame that would engulf him and quench his spiritual thirst. Yes, a death sacrifice must be paid. Such is the cost of enlightenment.

First, Winslow must atone. That’s what he came here for, though he probably didn’t know that when he boarded the ship. Wake might have. Like Father Zeus, Wake may be as old as time itself. But, unlike Al-Hallaj, Winslow lacks humility. His thirst will never be quenched. Back on the rock, Hermes told Prometheus that if he were to apologize, Zeus would show compassion and let him go. To which Prometheus replied: Tell Zeus I despise him.

But Winslow is no titan. He is a mortal man made of flesh and blood, and his punishment is painful. He can no more spit in the eye of Zeus than he can pull in Leviathan with a fishhook. And, like all those old tales, Winslow is just another who learns his lesson a minute too late.   

ON THE BILL: The Lighthouse, 8:45 p.m. Friday, Feb. 14, Boedecker Theatre, Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., 303-444-7372.