starring Shia LaBeouf, Lucas Hedges, Noah Jupe, FKA twigs
written by Shia LaBeouf
directed by Alma Har'el
starring Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe
written and directed by Robert Eggers
by Walter Chaw There is a suggestion in Alma Har'el's haunted, raw Honey Boy that the only knowledge forbidden in the United States is that of the self. The picture aligns in that way with Robert Eggers's similarly haunted The Lighthouse; both films deal in a sense with the sins of the fathers becoming the secret trauma of the sons. They diverge, though, not in the process of peeling away layers and layers of sedimentary fragments the everymen of these dramas have shored against their ruins, but in what they discover at the end of their excavations. To my depressed hope, the final image of The Lighthouse, which promises this cycle of suffering is evergreen, ever-returning, and inevitable, sounds something like the truth. At the other pole is Honey Boy, which, in the course of one of its fantasy sequences, offers, of all things, reconciliation. It says that there's hope at the end of all the suffering, that the map actually leads to buried treasure and not just the skeletons of the things left to guard it (their ranks are full but they're always recruiting). I'm not sure I'm compelled by the case it's trying to make, particularly as this story has more to tell, but there's a power to its piquant grace and love and acceptance.
The central image of the film is of Otis, shackled into a harness on set, getting jerked backwards, rapidly, away from the camera. As a small boy, it's during the filming of a pie fight; later, it's a Michael Bay-like explosion. Starting with Jupe, then Hedges, regarding us with neutral expressions, Honey Boy yanks them away from us violently. There is a distance being described here between an actor and his audience, and between an actor and himself. Otis is taught--and then repeats--that people are only ever performing for others. He's challenged as a young adult as to whether he's being genuine towards one of his counsellors or just mocking him, and he doesn't know. It's both or neither, probably, and there's terror in his inability to describe the gulf between those responses, much less cross them. I like a moment, too, where young Otis cries while he watches his father watching Otis on television pretending to cry, because the lines he's saying in his sappy melodrama are lines he hopes to say to his own dad, separated at a distance, knowing that his dad won't be able to respond to him in the way he needs him to. They're separated by a pane of glass. His father asks him why he's crying. We remember he's been told not to cry in front of him. And so it goes.
Honey Boy feels dangerous, unrestrained and unpredictable. It is by turns hopelessly naive and impossibly wise in exactly the way children forced to mature before they're ready tend to be. Young Jupe is an absolute revelation here, enough so that I'm tempted to say I haven't seen a better performance from anyone this year. He has complete control over a character ever in danger of succumbing to twee mawkishness or screaming histrionics. A scene where he's forced to repeat both sides of a fight over the telephone for his father, who refuses to pick up the receiver, and his mother (Natasha Lyonne, never seen), who doesn't have the sense not to use her twelve-year-old as the string between their tin cans, is emotionally devastating, mainly because Jupe never tips that he's performing. He's immediate and pure and I don't think you teach that. Hedges, too, seemingly omnipresent the last two awards seasons, turns in another committed performance. I love how he listens, brow furrowed and jaw clenched. And LaBeouf plays his own father in a manner that honours him as a complex human being: Though despicable in many ways he's a victim of his demons. LaBeouf presents him in a prism of love and understanding that a few final moments pay off beautifully. Honey Boy embraces its shadow.
Robert Eggers follows up his The Witch, an anthem of a young woman's sexual development and the chaos it brings a Puritanical society bent on controlling it, with a retelling of the Prometheus myth, in which our erstwhile hero tries to steal knowledge from a wizened and jealous "father." Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives on a remote rock to tend a lighthouse in a perpetually grey, miserable, rain-slashed season. His length of term is two weeks, and he's given a boss in lighthouse master Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), who's intent, it would seem, on making it feel like an eternity. Wake holds the keys to the light-chamber of the lighthouse close to him at all times. He forbids Ephraim from making the trip to the top, relegating him to the shitwork of maintaining human structures on a plot of land violently inhospitable to such things and warning him not to harm a seagull that torments him. "They're the ghosts of dead sailors," he growls, and the reference to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" rebounds off these rock and clapboard walls. Of course Ephraim harms the sea bird and wears his diminutive albatross metaphorically around his neck for the rest of forever as two weeks stretch into an infinite abyss of unimaginable filth and atrocity.
It all hinges on a secret Ephraim is keeping, and he tells it finally after a drunken night of dancing, fighting, puke, piss, and blood. His reward? Wake taunts him for "spilling the beans" and a cycle of madness and murder begins. The Lighthouse is so spare and strange that it tips itself immediately as metaphor or allegory. In the Prometheus story, Prometheus the Titan steals fire from Heaven to give to his creation, mankind, so that they might fend off extermination by a troubled Olympus. It's the Eden story in which knowledge is the thing that prevents people from happiness, distilled in this telling into a man intent on stealing the key to the top room of a lighthouse in order to finally know himself. The scenes where Ephraim gets his wish are so stylized they play like a dream or fantasy. Does he really touch the light? Does it burn him? Does it feel good? The rapture of knowledge is presented as all-consuming and inevitably destructive.
His Icarian descent immediately after--a reference to another cautionary tale about too much knowledge--suggests that what Eggers is involved in through his first two pictures is the exploration of how film is the vehicle of our cultural mythology now. In this communal act of watching, in a dark cave before a flickering light, we learn the identities and proclivities of the monsters that drive us. The Lighthouse is Ovid by way of the British Romanticists (who discovered the geography of the unconscious)--and Chekhov and Kafka, Lovecraft and Bergman. Whether it be the desire to control female sexuality in The Witch or the horror of exploring the labyrinth of the self only to find the minotaur, your own deformed bastard issue, in The Lighthouse, Eggers engages us in a struggle for consciousness that is as ancient as it is essential. What separates his films from others who want to play in this same arena is that they are themselves inscrutable texts until their final moments, which serve as a guide to reflection. They act, in other words, like his heroes act. Like we act. We stumble through horror and misadventure to find out too late we were part of a play that's been running since before we started writing it down. And don't we feel stupid and naked, then?