For this latest review round-up, I’ll be diving into a trio of films that couldn’t be any more different from each other: Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, The Gallows Act II, and the bizarrely funny Greener Grass from directors and former members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe.
The Lighthouse: Honestly, I’ve struggled with my review of The Lighthouse for quite some time. Not because I didn’t like it—filmmaker Robert Eggers does impressive work here once again—but because I’m not sure how much I have to contribute in the way of real discourse. The film has only been on the festival circuit and in theaters for a relatively short time, and yet I feel like I’ve already seen many great discussions on it that were beyond anything I might bring to the table myself. But suffice to say, The Lighthouse is one of the boldest genre films of 2019.
A descent into madness that plays out akin to a waking nightmare you can’t quite escape, The Lighthouse is centered around Thomas (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim (Robert Pattinson), who arrive at a secluded lighthouse on a New England island, tasked with keeping things rolling at the titular locale. As his elder, Thomas spends his time ordering Ephraim around, obnoxiously spouting off tall tales and farting at every turn, pushing the younger caretaker's buttons every chance he gets. Thomas constantly holds his position over the frustrated Ephraim, never allowing the “lad” (one of the demeaning terms that Dafoe’s character uses here to further humble his younger counterpart) the chance to be up in the light-supplying part of the lighthouse, and the way his boss constantly belittles him only exacerbates Ephraim’s growing sense of hysteria and his yearning for “the light” that he cannot ever have. Oh, and there’s an angry seagull poking around, too.
Evoking a feeling of Heart of Darkness by way of a Lovecraft/Hemingway mash-up, from a technical standpoint, The Lighthouse is a masterful achievement on every conceivable level. From its 4:3 aspect ratio, its stunning and haunting black and white cinematography, and a sound design that’s relentlessly maddening to experience as a viewer, there are so many technical elements to The Lighthouse that you can’t help but applaud Eggers’ fearlessness in making a film that looks and feels like absolutely nothing else going on in the genre today, or maybe even ever.
The performances are incredible, especially Pattinson, who does the best work of his career in The Lighthouse (which is saying something, especially with High Life out there looming in the distance), but from a storytelling perspective, I’m not sure that the latest from Eggers hits the same narrative high notes that he did years ago with The Witch, with The Lighthouse feeling more like an “experience” than it does a wholly satisfying film with a real storytelling structure to it. That might have been Eggers’ intentions, but when it comes to my own proclivities as a film fan, I don’t tend to find these types of existential explorations all that enjoyable.
So, while I certainly admire many of its achievements, and can recognize raw talent when I see it, I didn’t connect with The Lighthouse the way that I did with The Witch, which hit me on such a deeply emotional level that its story still resonates with me nearly five years later. That being said, there’s no denying that Eggers is a formidable talent who makes films unlike anyone else out there, and even though I’m not sure that I’d ever watch The Lighthouse again (which sounds more harsh than it is), I’ll still be there day one for whatever Eggers does next.
Movie Score: 4/5
The Gallows Act II: As one of the very few defenders of The Gallows out there (I still believe in my heart of hearts that it’s way more fun than many ever gave it credit for), it brings me no pleasure to report that The Gallows Act II is a total letdown as a sequel, and completely undoes everything that I enjoyed about the original film in the first place. And for those who didn’t enjoy The Gallows, I can’t imagine Act II is going to do much for you, either.
In the sequel, we are introduced to Auna Rue (Ema Horvath), a YouTuber and aspiring actress who is about to start school at a prestigious theater-centric academy, but she struggles to fit in amongst her peers. One day, a mysterious online account contacts her and tells her about the “Charlie Challenge,” which is tied to a play called The Gallows, in which one of the students accidentally hung himself in a horrific accident, supposedly dooming all who dare to perform the play in its wake. At first, Auna begins to perform a monologue from The Gallows, which not only garners her a huge audience online, but also helps her fit in at school. But the more time she spends performing parts of The Gallows, Auna begins to realize that the “Charlie Challenge” is not only real, but it has put her and everyone she cares about squarely in harm's way, including her sister Lisa (Brittany Falardeau) and love interest Cade (Chris Milligan).
As mentioned, without going into spoilers, The Gallows Act II does try to go and do its own thing for most of the time, but ultimately, certain third act reveals completely annihilate the supernatural elements established in The Gallows, making this a bit more of an unfocused story, and one whose finale feels ultimately unsatisfying. I was so primed to love Act II (I was just excited we were finally getting a Gallows sequel in the first place), and I can’t even begin to explain just how disappointed I was once filmmakers Travis Cluff and Chris Lofing revealed the game that they were playing in this follow-up effort.
Also, can we please stop killing dogs in movies? It’s tired and it’s become distracting to a point where whenever I see a poor pup in a film, I’m pretty much focused on their fate far more than their human co-stars.
I will go to my grave forever defending The Gallows, but there’s very little I can defend about The Gallows Act II. I wish the story adhered to the rules established in the first film more, or that it didn’t try to undo the mythology that was originally established as well, because I enjoyed The Hangman and his murderous misdeeds immensely. And while I’m never one to get upset over sequels that try and blaze their own path, the approach utilized here is in such a manner that completely undermines everything that preceded it. Such a bummer, man.
Movie Score: 1.5/5
Greener Grass: Probably one of the weirdest movies I’ve seen this year is Greener Grass from writers/directors Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe. A satirical send-up of suburban life that feels like it would be right at home airing in the late-night hours of Adult Swim, Greener Grass is an absurdly offbeat examination of the American Dream, and how we fixate on what other people have, instead of just being content with what we’ve earned ourselves. With its vivid, sun-drenched palette, brightly colored wardrobe, and all the characters donning braces, it’s clear from the start that Greener Grass isn’t here to be your typical small-town spoof.
Greener Grass features cordial but competitive best friends Jill (DeBoer) and Lisa (Luebbe), who live in the same community, whose kids play for the same soccer team, and who spend much of their free time together along with their husbands Nick (SNL’s Beck Bennett) and Dennis (Neil Casey). While Lisa lives blissfully unaware of any trouble brewing, Jill is suffering from a growing dissatisfaction with her quasi-normal existence, especially after she offers up her baby to her bestie (because Greener Grass is just THAT kind of movie), her son eventually morphs into a Golden Retriever, and she decides to divorce her husband because her friends tell her to. And while Jill’s life continues to unravel, Lisa thrives, despite the fact that her son might be possessed, and she gives “birth” to a soccer ball she calls “Twilson.”
Underneath its shiny veneer resides a poignant exploration of the pressures of women needing to be “perfect” in the eyes of society and live up to the standards of others, which I really appreciated. I found a lot of the humor in the film rather enjoyable, but I don’t know if it all works successfully, and the film sometimes lags a bit underneath the weight of its whimsical aspirations. But there’s no denying that both Luebbe and DeBoer are insanely witty and talented, and I can’t help but applaud them for their unpredictably clever take on what happens when we’re forced to be “too polite” rather than just living out our own truth, regardless of what anyone else thinks.
Movie Score: 3/5