“I’ve never been that concerned if someone sees the movie” is one of those things directors and actors say but that you assume they don’t really believe. It’s false humility. It’s insecurity. It’s a gesture towards artistic purity. But for Robert Pattinson—who said it in a 2017 GQ profile—it just might be true. Pattinson has acted in ten (released) films since he last played a sexy vampire, and those films combined have grossed about two percent of the second Twilight: Breaking Dawn. Instead of seeking out big roles in blockbusters, Pattinson has fashioned himself into an unlikely indie icon—one of the most sensational actors working in the fringes, a paragon of taste, and a new breed of moviestar.
It’s all a bit cliche to observe, but rather than appealing to the masses, what Pattinson seems to be genuinely concerned with is finding material that will surprise him, make him laugh, material that, according to him, is “pleasurable to read, pleasurable to think about.” But there’s more to it than that. “Whenever I'm doing a bigger part, I always seem to like the same stuff—things that seem quite audacious... A lot of the movies I like have a kind of glee to them... And a little bit of a kind of a punk thing as well. A bit of sticking a middle finger up to everybody.”
In his latest role, Pattinson doesn’t literally flip anyone the bird, but he does catch an actual seagull and clobber it to death with his bare hands. (As they say, stick it to the gulls!) He also violently masturbates to a mermaid figurine, goes monkey-clapping mad off DIY hooch, and reprimands Willem Dafoe for his incessant fa**ing. The movie is The Batman—er, The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’s spooky and surreal follow-up to The Witch. Shot on black and white film, with a vintage 1.19:1 aspect ratio, featuring only two characters (three if you count the imagined mermaid), and packed with dense 19th century-style monologues, it’s pure art house—or it might be if not for Pattinson and if not for where movies have gone.
If Pattinson, who is 33, had come of age in a previous era, you imagine his career would look something like that of his ancestral handsome leading men, Leonardo Dicaprio and Brad Pitt. He’d be Romeo, Howard Hughes, Mills, Rusty Ryan, Tyler Durden (in a way, The Lighthouse is the 2019 Fight Club). He’d be doing cool, interesting things with cool, interesting filmmakers, and a lot of people would actually go see those things. But as movies have skewed to the franchise-indie extremes, and as IP has eclipsed movie stars in cachet—either out of necessity or freedom—Pattinson has fashioned a different path. “The thing I’ve realized over the last few years is I really like being an A&R sort of person,” he said in a 2017 podcast interview. “I don’t do anything except scour the world to try to find people who the majority of people haven’t realized their true potential yet—and then completely go in on them.”
The approach has made him an A24 posterboy. It’s led him to David Michôd, the Safdie Brothers, the Zellner Brothers, Claire Denis (a known commodity, but still), and Eggers, among others. And where bubbling directorial talent meets the star power of Robert Pattinson, cult classics are often born—The Rover, Childhood of a Leader, Good Time, and so on. Maybe very few people actually go see these movies in theaters, but with the meme machine that is the Internet, people don’t necessarily need to see them for their mythology to grow. Or for indelible images to sprout. . There’s Pattinson, face greasy as a new baseball mitt, running furiously from the police. And now there’s Pattinson and Dafoe, each possibly off their rockers, alone and sparring on a nightmarish island.
This Lighthouse Pattinson goes by Winslow, and he’s a drifter who’s taken a job as a maintenance worker at, yes, an eerie lighthouse run by a mercurial fisherman named Wake (Dafoe). It’s a film without many parallels, and Pattinson is playing a role that’s ostensibly very different than Connie Nikas (Good Time), or Henry Costin (The Lost City of Z), or Monte (High Life). And yet, the fundamental quality Pattinson brings to the role is the same: mystery. You don’t know if Winslow is who he says he is, and suspense builds and builds around his past.
If the story of our time is that of the swindler, Pattinson has proven to be the perfect protagonist. He looks like a traditional matinee idol, but his wide-set eyes and exotic features can also lend a sense of uncertainty, alienness, or desperation. “He's a very, very handsome man,” says the director James Gray, who directed Pattinson in The Lost City of Z. “But you also feel like you can't get completely inside of him. There's something distant and unclear and frightening. If you can't read the actor completely, then he starts becoming a source of possible danger. He has a lot of danger.”
The thing that’s most delightful about watching Pattinson, though, isn’t merely the lingering sense of danger. It’s what he does with the sense of danger. He can use uncertainty to horrifying or disastrous ends, as he does in Childhood of a Leader and Good Time. But just as often he taps it for absurdity, as in Damsel and The Lighthouse. The offbeat prince charming is actually a delusional fool, the innocent maritime worker is only a few drinks from complete lunacy. As the Dauphin of France in David Michôd ’s new Middle Ages war drama, The King, Pattinson, with his cartoonish French accent and pouty lips, gives an otherwise serious film a needed wink. He can do restrained—you’ll hardly notice he’s in Lost City of Z—but he can just as easily go just overboard enough. “Rob doing the lumberjack song as if he's speaking in tongues was more than required,” Eggers says. “And same thing with his monkey clapping after Dafoe chases him with the axe. Both of those were just incredible.”
Pattinson says his sense of humor comes from his dad: “My dad loved things that were contrarian. And it used to drive me absolutely insane when I was a kid. Kind of just having arguments, just purely devil's advocate arguments. And there's something—I don't know, you kind of want to poke at things quite a lot.” It rubbed off.
That need to poke, to be contrarian and give everyone the finger, is what’s made it hard to square Pattinson’s most noteworthy future project: The Batman. Bruce Wayne, the mysterious playboy who secretly fights crime, is a role Pattinson was born to play. But until now, Pattinson—who currently isn’t allowed to talk about the movie—has forcefully veered away from the things he’s supposed to do. He’s made a mockery of the aristocracy, and he’s given every indication that he truly truly absolutely does not care if anyone sees his movies. So, why Batman? Either Gotham’s about to get weird, or things have come so far full circle that playing the constantly rebooted crime fighter is the only way to subvert expectations. Regardless, I’m curious. Which is why Pattinson’s the only actor—apart from maybe Jerry Stiller or Tiffany Haddish—who could get me excited to see how another Batman pans out.