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The underrated genre weirdness of Robert Pattinson
There's a moment in The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers' truly brilliant horror film about two lighthouse keepers going mad in isolation on the harsh New England coast, where Robert Pattinson's character sees a body washed up on the shore. He approaches it and discovers it is a beautiful naked woman, and like any self-respecting 19th-century man losing his mind to madness, he decides to f**k her. It barely seems to matter that she's a mermaid and doesn't have the right equipment, although she does possess distinctly floral-looking genitalia large enough for several possible entrants. This moment flashes back to Pattinson discovering a scrimshaw of a mermaid in his bed, which he and many keepers before him used as fantasy inspiration for lonely nights in.
While watching this incredible movie and seeing Pattinson throw himself wholly into a role that requires him to screw a mermaid, get pecked at by seagulls while lying naked on the rocks, and flirt with Willem Dafoe over spirits made from turpentine, I remember thinking to myself, "Eh, it's still not as weird as Twilight."
It's been eight years since Robert Pattinson donned the sparkles to play our generation's most iconic vampire, Edward Cullen. The British actor landed the role amid a flurry of fan pushback (Henry Cavill and Gaspard Ulliel were their choices) and quickly became one of the most famous men on the planet after this little movie about teen romance with a paranormal twist became a true pop culture phenomenon.
Nobody involved with the project seemed particularly prepared for this explosion, least of all Pattinson. Indeed, he seemed faintly petrified by the whole ordeal, and understandably so. Many think-pieces and profiles of the actor today talk about how much of a relief it must be for Pattinson to be out of the shadow of Twilight, to no longer be defined by the series that delighted millions of women while becoming an easy pop-culture punching-bag. They proclaim his excellent taste in projects and his daring sensibilities in the roles he accepts, even as he now dons the cowl to play Batman. The sparkly brooding of days of yore doesn't exactly command respect in these conversations, but to omit Twilight from the history of Pattinson's career—or, at the very least, to downplay its importance—overlooks the origins of one of his most interesting traits as an actor: Robert Pattinson is f**king weird!
Once everyone realized how big a deal Twilight was going to be, Hollywood seemed ready to make Pattinson into our generation's next A-List leading man heartthrob. He was certainly good looking enough for it, a trait we'd all discovered when he played Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and he had that right brand of stoic charm to pull it off. It's not hard to imagine studios trying to make Pattinson into the late-'90s Leonardo DiCaprio of the 2010s. He would eventually do movies in-between Twilight titles that reflected this branding: think Water for Elephants or Remember Me, a romantic drama with one of the most mind-thuddingly misguided twists in movie history. These roles didn't feel especially worthy of what made Pattinson so interesting to watch. They overlooked the best part of his Edward Cullen performance, which was his undeniable oddness.
Pattinson knows exactly what kind of movie he's in when he's playing the world's most desirable 100-plus-year-old teenager. He's in on the joke, so to speak, and he imbues Edward with a sly sense of humor that brings much-needed levity to his tiresome self-loathing. He understands that Cullen is probably a tad deranged after decades of being a perpetual adolescent with no ties to the world other than his ragtag family. He's a man who sparkles like a Christmas tree in sunlight and had to chew his parasitic mutant baby out of his wife's uterus after one of their kicks literally broke her spine. He's seen some sh*t, and Pattinson gets that.
To this day, it feels like we overlook just how weird Twilight is. Sure, it's a franchise with many deep-seated issues which have been discussed at length over the past 15 years, but for a series defined by the world as yet another vampire romance, it's always had a much more surreal undercurrent than that logline would suggest. More highbrow critics may like to celebrate Pattinson's auteur-driven project choices today, but it was Twilight that helped to establish him as a wonderful oddball. Pattinson himself acknowledged that in a 2019 interview with Variety, noting, "It's a weird story, Twilight. It's not just like – it's strange how people responded a lot to it. I guess the books are very romantic, but at the same time, it's not like The Notebook romantic. The Notebook is very sweet and heartbreaking, but Twilight is about this guy, and he finds the one girl he wants to be with, and he also wants to eat her. I mean, not eat her, but drink her blood or whatever. ... It's not that other people are telling them they can't be together, it's his own body telling him that."
I would argue that it was the oddness of Twilight that gave Pattinson the drive to make weird choices with his career after the series ended. He had the whole world at his feet and an array of major projects to choose from. Hollywood clearly would have loved to make him a proto-Chris before that was even a thing. Instead, he went for smaller movies where he was typically tasked with going totally bonkers, and often within a genre framing.
Last year alone saw him play around in the realms of science fiction and horror in ways that would usually baffle Hollywood or be seen as career-killers for someone of his stature. In The Lighthouse, as we mentioned above, Pattinson throws himself wholeheartedly into a part of near-mythic proportions, part Greek mythology, part drunken sailor shanty. In High Life, a bleak space opera by the legendary director Claire Denis, Pattinson balances the tenderness of being a new father with the dread of imprisonment and non-consensual sexual experimentation. His character is essentially the calm center of the surrounding storm but that doesn't exclude him from the unnerving strangeness that permeates every pore of this movie (I won't spoil it but this is a movie DRENCHED in semen, literally and figuratively).
Pattinson at his oddest remains so effective because you can sense that divide between what he wants and what the industry desires of him. It would be so much easier to make him just another muscled dude with a gun and a damsel to avenge and he would probably be pretty solid at it. The industry has very little room for weird, but sometimes, it's the best path for those leading men. Think of how much better Jake Gyllenhaal is in films like Okja or Nightcrawler compared to Prince of Persia, or how Armie Hammer may look like a Disney prince yet he's never seemed more at home than he does snorting the world's longest line of cocaine in Sorry to Bother You. There's something instinctively appealing about watching good-looking men turn themselves into utter deviants through genre fiction, and of this current generation of A-List actors, Pattinson may be the king of it (speaking of The King, that barmy French accent he has in that movie deserves its own thesis).
So, the next time you see Robert Pattinson in a movie being a weirdo and think about how far he's come, just remember that time he tore open Kristen Stewart's womb with his teeth and consider how it's always been this way.