Review by Glenn Heath Jr.
Posted on 15 August 2011
Source Paramount Pictures DVD
Categories Jerzy Skolimowski: Eros & Exile
Thematic and stylistic contradictions litter the films of Jerzy Skolimowski like landmines, waiting for the right amount of pressure to explode. There’s the empty swimming pool in Deep End, the dissected display car in Le Départ, and the disintegrating apartment in Moonlighting, each physically hollow but wonderfully expressive of the human weakness and psychological erosion inherent in the character’s torment. These seemingly benign everyday spaces become symbolic tombs for lost souls unable to bottle up their building repressions. Aesthetically, this represents a brutal battle for emotional control, a skirmish that almost always ends in death. Skolimowski’s challenging cinematic spectrums are contradictory in nature, a melding of dark comedy and tragedy that defies classic expectation. While his work rarely delves into full-on surrealism, it always evokes a dark shade of the supernatural, a twinge of the jet-black impulses residing beneath the surface.
The Lightship, Skolimowski’s most economic piece of genre deconstruction, is completely defined by its contradictory setting and confluence of tones. The film’s central symbol, a floating lighthouse that never moves, is a cramped and unstable vessel that echoes the strained relationship between the ship’s leader Captain Miller and his rebellious teenage son, Alex. Set “10 years after WWII off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia,” The Lightship attempts to establish a very specific sense of time and space. Immediately, Skolimowski initiates a trend of disruption to the normal rhythms of military protocol and order, first when Miller brings Alex onboard as punishment for getting arrested, and later when the crew picks up a trio of strange men drifting on a stalled motorboat in the open sea. The latter group proves to be a dangerous brood. Caspary, a Southern-accented gentile who specializes in prophetic statements, struts onto Miller’s boat with a dandy’s grace, followed by two bumbling brothers named Eddie and Eugene, a pair only genetically connected by their equally mean-spirited disposition.
Unlike Miller and his grungy Coast Guard crew, who are distinguished by their professional roles and overall respect for authority, Alex and his James Dean-like façade exist as a singular questioning entity watching the narrative unfold from the periphery of the frame. The placement of loyalties becomes even more important when Caspary, Eddie, and Eugene reveal themselves as a gang of killers trying to escape capture, taking control of the ship with lethal ease. From this lighting-quick setup, The Lightship turns into a feature-length standoff between the self-restrained Miller and the maniacal Caspary. Every one of their conversations is an incredibly dense power play for control, with Miller vying for a peaceful conclusion to the siege and Caspary hell bent on antagonizing his opponent until he reacts. The cat-and-mouse exchanges between the two men build in intensity, until the brimming tension becomes too much for Miller’s crew to handle. Skolimowski contrasts the subtle sound design of the boat swaying and creaking with stylized muzzle flashes of slow-motion violence ripped from the western universe of Sam Peckinpah. The stylistic juxtaposition further signifies the inert ship as a personal Alcatraz for everyone, a place you come to die slowly but surely.
Even if The Lightship eventually runs out of steam during its rushed and incomplete climax, Skolimowski explores a few thematic threads that transcend genre in brilliant ways. These layered undercurrents of character occur mostly in the scenes between Caspary and Miller, who form a complex hero/villain relationship rarely seen in Hollywood films. Caspary recognizes the discontent between Miller and Alex, devilishly smiling and saying, “I find families fascinating.” His intentions are as muddied as the dank water surrounding the ship, but his assessment is spot on. Caspary slowly dismantles Miller’s identity one piercing word at a time, calling into question his role as a leader and a father. “The death of the father does free the son,” Caspary muses, his eyes bulging from the amusement from playing this disturbing parlor game. Late in the film, Alex even comments on the disintegrating atmosphere onboard: “Nobody was in charge of anything anymore.”
The examination of confrontation in The Lightship foreshadows similar motifs in Essential Killing, with Skolimowski questioning the necessity of violence in pressurized situations. Physical tension and temporal isolation become Skolimowski’s focus, replacing the political or social metaphors of his other films with iconic symbols of heroism, doubt, and evil. Most interestingly, Skolimowski masterfully explores the contradictions of his setting, paralleling the dank cavernous interior spaces of the creaky ship with endless foggy exteriors. The roving set pieces of dialogue, violence, and confusion take on a near-spiritual importance, snaking through the hallways, into the engine rooms, before spilling out onto the deck. As the conflict begins to expand beyond verbal threats, Skolimowski breaks down the communication between characters on each side, destroying hierarchical concerns, supplanting racial standing, and undermining the arrogance of youth. But like Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition, with its more streamlined finale, The Lightship ends with Alex’s mournful words of regret regarding his father’s heroic actions, emphasizing the fragility of family dynamics and the crippling power of judgment.
Ultimately, The Lightship constructs a densely symbolic crime film structure seeping with enough tonal subversion to match any David Lynch joint. The film is a hypnotic oddity in a Skolimowski canon filled with daring experiments, slyly submerging Hollywood genre conventions by engaging a disturbing sense of place. Throughout The Lightship, trauma resurfaces again and again like the waves crashing against the boat’s hull, a never-ending requiem for a dream, for a past, for a family free of contradictions.
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