In the golden age of Hollywood, queer desire had no choice but to hide in plain sight. There are countless examples of classic films with obvious queer themes, even if they were not explicitly stated — “Ben-Hur,” “Rope,” and “Spartacus” — to name a few. Gore Vidal’s original script for “Ben-Hur” was quite overtly queer, pretty clearly implying that Ben-Hur and his enemy Messala were once lovers, but it was toned down in the editing process. But there was a reason for it then. So when movies include sheepish allusions to queer desire 60 years later, they come up short.
In “The Lighthouse” and “JoJo Rabbit,” two movies that couldn’t possibly be more different, men who battle demons together form unusual bonds. Both movies come from wildly inventive filmmakers with styles so specific their films can feel like their own mini-genres, but they share half-baked gay subtexts that fall short of their ambitious visions.
A simmering two-hander set on a remote island in Nova Scotia, “The Lighthouse” borrows in part from historical diaries containing the mad rantings of real-life lighthouse keepers. Shot in black-and-white and starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, the film follows a veteran sea dog and his new apprentice throughout a harrowing tenure in soggy isolation. As time passes, both men spiral towards madness as they become each other’s undoing. While technically a horror movie, Eggers is more focused on the terrors of the mind than anything otherworldly (though there’s some of that, too).
For most of the film, the seasoned Thomas (Dafoe) is in charge, barking orders at Ephraim (Pattinson) and disparaging his work. At night, Thomas devolves into a drunken stupor, singing shanty songs and waxing poetic. Each man is suspicious of the other. Ephraim doesn’t drink, much to the chagrin of Thomas, who won’t allow his peer into the upper deck of the lighthouse, which emanates a mysterious and alluring light.
With the men removed from the outside world, sex — or the desire for it — permeates everything. Ephraim has repeated visions of a beautiful mermaid, whose siren song is both arousing and eerie. Thomas pleasures himself at the altar of his precious lighthouse. Though the men sleep in shifts, their creaky twin beds are only three feet apart. Neither man can escape the other’s sweating, snoring, farting bodies, as they slowly become unraveled. When they finally come face to face, you can practically smell the pheromones passing with each breath, bracing for a kiss that never comes. So why doesn’t it?
That’s a frustrating and gutless turn in a movie that’s audacious in almost every other way. In a story about two men on a deserted island, the homoeroticism is practically baked into the log-line. To ignore it would have been disappointing, but taking it right to the edge and then pulling back is only marginally better.
In the film’s conclusion, when both men have fully descended into insanity and Ephraim is walking Thomas on a leash and calling him a “good boy,” the queer context is undeniable, and yet “The Lighthouse” never fully goes there. It feels like a missed opportunity at best — and a spineless maneuver at worst — to invoke themes of dominance and submission, borrowing from queer fetish culture, without even so much as a genuine erotic exchange.
In interviews, Pattinson has acknowledged the film’s BDSM themes. “There’s very much a kind of sub-dom thing happening,” he recently told Thrillist. “It’s not that far from the surface. We were really trying to push it as well. The bit when we fight each other — there’s definitely a take where we were literally trying to pull each other’s pants down. It literally almost looked like foreplay.” When asked directly about why there was no kiss, he demurred, calling the film a grotesque version of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” (At least in “Fifty Shades of Grey” the characters actually get it on.)
While “The Lighthouse” should have gone further with its queerness, “Jojo Rabbit” would have been better off avoiding the topic altogether. The film follows a Hitler Youth child who invents an imaginary friend as Hitler, played by Waititi himself in a grating and silly performance. Waititi’s Hitler is a bit of a buffoon; all funny faces and sing-song affect. He’s also flamboyant in a cartoonish way, much like how Mel Brooks wrote his far funnier Hitler caricature in “The Producers.” But a foppish Hitler is the least of Waititi’s troubles — the real homoeroticism comes into play with Sam Rockwell’s character.
Cementing his status as Hollywood’s go-to for sympathetic bigots, Rockwell plays the leader of Jojo’s troop, Captain Klenzendorf. He is followed around by his loyal subordinate, a twink named Finkel, played by “Game of Thrones” star Alfie Allen. Klenzendorf and Finkel also share a charged face-to-face, will-they-or-won’t-they moment.
In the movie’s inane final battle scene, which arrives with so little fanfare as to land zero emotional impact, the two men are seen charging into the fray adorned with colorful fringe epaulets, a bright red cape accenting the Captain’s SS uniform. They never kiss, embrace, or acknowledge their romance; instead, Waititi leaves the audience to piece things together from a few winks and some sequined uniforms. (Waititi doesn’t even begin to address that the Nazis were sending gay people to concentration camps.)
The movie’s “exclusively gay moment” may be louder than the one in “The Lighthouse,” but it’s far more problematic, as Waititi plays it for comedic affect to generate sympathy for his characters — queerness as shorthand for humanity. Maybe that would have felt radical or bold 25 years ago, but in 2019, it’s just plain lazy.
Of course, neither Waititi or Eggers are gay, which is not to say straight filmmakers can’t or shouldn’t use queer elements in their work. They can, and they should. If straight filmmakers want to comment on themes of repressed sexuality, intolerance, and power exchange, their work can only be enriched by a queer aesthetic. But they need to say it loud and proud, with more than just a wink and some fringe.