This film is an example of cinematic technique at its best. The use of lighting, isolated camera shots and narrative over-voicing to portray the story is excellently done in this piece. But, the film does more than give us a well-filmed adventure. The director uses the nine actors in this tale to examine the nature of our most base emotions: fear, anger, rage, loathing and hate.
The story is told from the point of view of the Coast Guard captain's (Klaus Maria Brandauer) son. Lightships were floating lighthouses in the late 1950s. They guided ships too far from lighthouses to shore safely, by anchoring in shallow waters offshore. They were later retired when satellite technology made them obsolete. The idea of a stable ship that guides lost vessels safely ashore is an element of plot that later serves to bring the action between Canberry (Robert Duvall), the deranged ringleader of a trio of criminals and Captain Miller (Brandauer) to a tragic conclusion.
As the story begins, Captain Miller's son, Alex is brought to the lightship by the police. He has been arrested for some misdemeanor onshore. His father has intervened with the local authorities to save him from jail time. He is recalcitrant and unwilling to stay with his father. He only wants to escape the motionless craft and return to dry land. The schism between parent and offspring is soon to be deepened by events that the small crew, captain and son could not have imagined would occur.
The next day, one of the crew spots a disabled motorboat drifting, and three suspicious characters are fished from the open sea. Here the story takes a definite disquieting turn.
This trio is composed of two, slightly retarded, criminal brothers, and their leader, Canberry. An egotistical psychotic, that fancies himself a natural philosopher of sorts. He orchestrates the lives of his dim-witted companions to his own ends. He also has a penchant for philosophizing. It is this idiosyncrasy that generates the plot line.
The story descends into a sinister state of affairs, as the three take over the ship and hold the crew hostage. While this tense configuration endures, Canberry and Miller have cryptic conversations that illustrate the depth of Canberry's psychosis. The two dim-witted brothers proceed to terrorize the ship's crewmates. It ends tragically.
The weather, the emotional states of the ship's occupants, the time and place all combine to make this film memorable to viewers. The two principals are obsessive models: Brandauer and his insistence on the stable anchoring of his ship and Duvall with his hunger to undo Miller. Though, Duvall and Brandauer are the principals in this film, all of the supporting actors deliver fine performances.
This is also a film aimed at an educated, mature and seasoned audience. I can't see a 16 year old sitting through a piece of this caliber. Nor would an aficionado of Hollywood blockbuster tripe watch more than 5 minutes of this film. But, to that rare audience in America of serious-minded, art-loving adults, The Lightship is the movie to see. It will be a work to argue over and analyze in its many subtle themes and textures. For instance, the soundtrack score on this film, guides the weaving of the various sequences such that you feel the dread, the growing sense of outrage, and the abandonment of being out to sea in a fog at night. I could catalog about 10 other high art elements of this film, but why do that? I urge you to see it, rent it, or whatever it takes but don't let it remain unseen. . Damn, I sound like an agent for this flick, now don't I.
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