In review: The Lighthouse and Peanut Butter Falcon

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Movie The Lighthouse
  • words by Jack Delaney

As it goes each year, the passing of the Oscars marks not merely the close of the Awards Season, but also a lull in new releases – the party’s practically over, most of the important guests have moved on. Anyone turning up at this point is just there to sell you half-drunk cocktails. 

Some winners, out of good grace, have hung about. They might be quite drunk but at least they’re beautiful, funny, smart and/or interesting. Several cinemas are still showing 1917, JoJo Rabbit, and the seminal see-it-or-weep Parasite

Maybe I’m being a bit of a snoot. And I shouldn’t be – Birds of Prey, for example, is a very fun film showcasing the expanding talent of Australia’s Margot Robbie, who (I believe) incidentally brought the very Australian bacon and egg brekky burger to the mainstream as comic book anti-heroine Harley Quinn’s treasured day-starter. 

But look, whether you’re a closet snoot like me, or someone who will watch it all, I wanted to use this opportunity to flag some recent releases that may not have made it to the Oscars, but definitely deserve more attention than they’ve received. I wouldn’t want you to miss out. 

While completely different at their core, The Lighthouse and Peanut Butter Falcon share lots of the same characteristics – like estranged brothers Cain and Abel. Both are smaller budget films, with small casts, but big aspirations. Both feature two male leads simultaneously dueling with and deriving the best from the other’s performance. And, importantly, both are uniquely authentic and genuine films in an industry where that artistic duty is being severely threatened.

But depending on your mood, the films core difference may help you decide which to see — the best, and most succinct comparison to make would be to say, watching The Lighthouse is like drowning and Peanut Butter Falcon like floating. 

Set on a (you don’t say) lighthouse in 1890’s Nova Scotia, Robert Egger’s latest horror film The Lighthouse is a dark, wet seamen’s nightmare – reality unravelling within a wild typhoon that pits the sanity of Robert Pattinson against that of Willem Defoe. 

The actors play two “wickies”, lighthouse keepers assigned to tend the lonely rock for four weeks. This time-frame becomes important as their daily routine slowly stretches the boundaries of everyone’s comprehension of how long it’s actually been. The apocalyptic drone of the island’s ancient foghorn is near-constant not offering any bookend to the day, and foreshadowing doom at all times. The monotony is only broken up by excessive drinking, and mysterious visions neither of which do anything to clear either the wickies’ or our heads. Paranoia sets in and both men are faced with the task of filling time with someone they don’t trust and who they can’t understand. 

However, this loose grip on reality is offset by the elegant manner in which the film is photographed. Shot ins black and white and in a claustrophobic 1:19 ratio and black and white, The Lighthouse is more reminiscent of early Hollywood talkies than a modern psychological horror. Each frame is filled with meticulously choregraphed light and action – often the expression on Willem Defoe’s underlit face speaks more than any ranting sea-curse could. But the language is still something to marvel at. Though at times difficult to follow, it’s a mix of thoroughly researched, authentic 1890’s sea-speak, full of brine and cockle shells, which is often punctuated by fart-jokes. The increasing strangeness leads to some intentionally absurd moments, and laughter at these points is a welcome release from the mounting tension and anxiety. 

At times disturbing, and incomprehensible the film is part Edgar Allen Poe, part H.P. Lovecraft and often Captain Ahab. Featuring some of the most striking imagery in memory, and probably some of the best monologues that are sure to live on as acting class staples, Robert Egger’s The Lighthouse works hard to bring weirdness into the mainstream without being obnoxious about it. 

At the other end of the spectrum, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz’s heartwarming comedy Peanut Butter Falcon inspires you to question reality, but in a rational manner. In his career debut, Zack Gottsagen, a young actor with down-syndrome, plays Zac a young man with down-syndrome, a ward of the state who is forced to live in a retirement home. We quickly understand the unfairness of this situation, as Zac yet to begin living his life, spends his days with those who have finished living theirs. He is monitored at all times by those who care but don’t trust him to care for himself.

Zachary Gottsagen and Shia LeBouf in Peanut Butter Falcon

In a [gets going fast] opening, Zac employs another resident to distract the guards while he makes a sprint for the exit. Though ambitious, he is crash-tackled immediately. His carer Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) is forced to impose stricter measures on him for what she believes to be his own good. He is made a ‘flight-risk’ and bars are placed on his windows. 

But despite his clipped wings, young Zac refuses to be discouraged. Hatching a plan with the help of his friend Carl (Bruce Dern) he bends the bars and squeezes through covered in soap and wearing only his underpants. Free and ready to live his life, he sets out to achieve his ultimate goal: to become a professional wrestler under the guidance of his hero the Saltwater Redneck (Thomas Haden Church). 

On the run, Zac meets Tyler (Shia Le Bouf) a fellow bandit with his own questionable past who agrees to take him as far as Eden, North Carolina. So begins this modern take on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Though their differences are obvious, their common humanity draws them together – they become surrogate brothers for each other: Tyler providing Zac with the confidence and hands-free care Zac needs and Zac with the forgiveness and empathy he needs to move forward. 

The chemistry between Gottsagen and Le Bouf is remarkable – the two became close friends off-camera, Gottsagen helping Le Bouf with his struggle with alcoholism. As Le Bouf’s behaviour offscreen became more and more irrational his friend Gottsagen reminded him that actors with down syndrome don’t get much of a chance to be in movies, and that Le Bouf was screwing his up by behaving like he was. And Le Bouf hasn’t been in trouble since. This closeness resonates on the screen and alone makes the film worth watching.

Though at times the film circles the corny border, the message it wants to send is an important one and something we should all try to experience in an age where it’s becoming increasingly more apparent that a few think they have a better idea of how the many should live.