The Lightship (Skolimowski, 1985)

The best filmmakers don’t float through genre – they dive in. And Jerzy Skolimowski’s plunges his nautical cat and mouse game The Lightship into the depths of the Crime film, revealing a haunting and minimalist deconstruction residing under the surface. Set entirely on a motionless vessel anchored off the coast of Virginia, Skolimowski pits a trio of brutal criminals against an unsuspecting Coast Guard crew, exploring the basic necessity for confrontation and action when facing escalating aggression. The physical tension and temporal isolation inherent to the clash becomes Skolimowski’s extreme focus, replacing the political or social metaphors of his previous films with iconic symbols of heroism, doubt, and evil.

Most interestingly, Skolimowski masterfully explores his setting, paralleling the dank cavernous interior spaces of the creaky ship with endless foggy exteriors, disconnecting his story from the rest of the world, destroying any hope for safety or rescue.  Roving set-pieces of dialogue, violence, and confusion snake through the hallways, into the engine rooms, then spill out onto the deck. As the conflict begins to expand beyond threats, Skolimowski breaks down the communication between characters on each side, destroying hierarchical concerns, supplanting racial standing, and undermining the arrogance of youth.

Performance is also a driving force throughout The Lightship, centering Robert Duvall’s devilish dandy Caspary with Klaus Maria Brandauer’s conflicted Captain Miller in elongated fits of verbal banter. These minefields of subtext are tonally diverse, shifting on a dime from menacing to reverent. Skolimowski’s generational dynamic once again rears its head, with Michael Lyndon evoking his disdainful and aloof character from Success Is The Best Revenge as Miller’s teenage son, acting as a sort of gauge for the audiences expectations and loyalties.

Despite the fascinating set-up and perplexing genre revisionism, The Lightship lacks the heft and imagination of Skolimowski’s other films. Only meat and potatoes here. But the film is nonetheless often thrilling and challenging, resonating on levels lesser genre films couldn’t imagine. As a reflection of the Skolimowski’s ongoing concerns with familial identity and honor, it’s another singular branch shooting out from the director’s family tree of auteurist oddities.

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