dir: Robert Eggers
The Lighthouse is not a fun flick to sit through. Almost every visual image and moment of sound design imbues everything with the feeling of overwhelming dread, so much so that it almost becomes comical.
Is it entertaining? If it is, it’s a strange form of entertainment perhaps made for some alien species.
If it has to be pigeonholed, and it doesn’t, it probably fits neatest into the horror genre, what with all the horrifying imagery and all the constant, relentless feeling of menace. Really, even if they want to claim it’s based on a real story about how two guys in a Welsh lighthouse went fucking nuts, it comes down to being a drama about two men trapped in a loveless relationship from which neither can escape.
One of them is old with a beard (Willem Dafoe), one of them is young, but has a moustache (Robert Pattinson). The two of them tend to a lighthouse off the cost of New England, which is a phrase Americans use all the time like the rest of us always know what they’re talking about. Oi, we have a New England region in Australia, too, but you don’t hear us always bragging about it. Like ours, it’s on their eastern coast. Unlike ours, it seems to bring out the monsters that lurk within all men’s hearts.
It’s not clear that the isolation or the drinking brings out the worst in these men alone. The old man speaks like a briny salty sea dog straight out of Moby Dick, with all the poise and drama of a preacher yelling “REPENT! REPENT ALL YE BEFORE IT TURNETH TOO LATE” from the pulpit of a wooden Nantucket church. Plus he looks like both the very definition of a crusty sea captain, and the living embodiment of the Michelangelo statue of Moses from the church of San Pietro in Rome (especially in one terrifying, brain-melting scene late in the flick).
What I’m saying is, they’re both damaged goods before they set foot on the island. The senior constantly yells at the junior, giving him all the menial tasks to complete, and rags on him constantly for doing a shitty job. Junior still does everything, though begrudgingly, as he doesn’t like being ordered around like a coolie on a banana plantation. I mean, no-one does. Junior also resists all attempts at engagement, and refuses alcohol, which the old man cannot abide.
As time passes, you’d think Junior will get more used to the unceasing nature of the work, but we are shown that it only gets tougher for him, and the old man mocks and denigrates all his efforts unfairly, perhaps. He is also adamant that they do not switch shifts, such that the younger man never gets to be allowed up top with the light. The old man jealously guards The Light, talking to it, and occasionally, it seems, having sex with it.
Yeah, you read that right. I didn’t make this film, don’t look at me like that. Junior is also, we are pretty sure, hallucinating a lot. He’s made an enemy of a one-eyed seagull who really has it in for him, but he also keeps seeing a mermaid around, who keeps laughing at him. The hallucinations start well before the descent into alcoholic and isolation-related mania, I’ll have you know.
Hmm. Writing about people going mad because of isolation – during a time when we’re all meant to be self-isolating – I hope the rest of us will do better than these two lunatics. Because there’s no way we could do worse.
Always, always, always the oppressive atmosphere is relentless. For all the two men know, the rest of the world no longer exists, which is another reason why this flick reminded me of Bela Tarr’s agonizing epic The Turin Horse, another black and white film in which two characters stay pretty much in one location and nothing much happens for 99% of the running time.
And the sounds – the mournful, angry, insistent fog horn, the minimalist ominous soundtrack always shocks us, always discomforts, no matter how many times it happens. I don’t know if we really get into the heads of these despicable men through their performances, but I’m sure many of us (especially these days) can relate to being trapped in one place with nothing to do but drink and slow dance with the person closest to us, even if they’re a hallucination.
The young man seems to be struggling with a whole bunch of other tensions that go beyond his fractious relationship with the old man. Amidst the imagery of the very anatomically graphic mermaid that he keeps seeing all over the place, he also keep flashing back to his memories of some young blonde guy that he was clearly attracted to, but death and deprivation interceded. He calls himself Ephraim Winslow, or insists that the old man call him that, but it’s not his name. Quite quickly we’re told it was the name of the young man he keeps seeing in his fevered waking nightmares.
The more ‘Winslow’ drinks, the better and the worse the relationship gets with old Tom Wick (Dafoe). The old man knows where to stick the knife in, but also knows how to gaslight Winslow. I mean, it seems like he’s gaslighting him, but we also know he’s pretty bonkers, so either he’s being occasionally gaslit in moments where he’s not hallucinating, or he’s an unreliable protagonist because we don’t know whether Winslow’s actions are what we’re seeing a lot of the time or what he thinks he’s seeing.
And then there’s the question as to whether Winslow is just so lonely and out of his mind on spirits and general insanity that he is attracted to Tom Wick, or whether he’s attracted to Tom anyway because he either is attracted to men, to men who look like Willem Dafoe, or whether crusty men with great big bushy beards are his jam.
There’s a moment after they’ve been drunkenly dancing for a while where he nearly kisses Old Tom, I swear, but then it becomes a punch up, because what else are horny guys in a heteronormative milieu going to do?
Then they laugh, and dance a jig, and collapse on the floor in their stupors. Winslow conspires to get into the top of the lighthouse and see the light for himself, but his efforts are thwarted by old Tom’s vigilance and stern words. He ‘steals’ a knife, and either thinks it will allow him entry to the sacred light or access to Tom’s organs, perhaps, and neither course of action seems like a winner.
The most disturbing scene is not the one I’m going to describe (neither is it the many scenes where young Winslow masturbates, with his increasing inability to get over the line, what with all the spirit drinking and increasing horror at what he imagines is female anatomy). It’s a scene where Winslow is on the outside of the lighthouse at its top, and sees a man’s body lying there on the walkway. We think it’s going to be the other young man again. What fools we are. He turns the man over, and it’s him, Winslow rolling over Winslow, it’s Robert Pattinson looking at Robert Pattinson, but then old Tom appears, naked, like a marble god, with the light of the lighthouse or the light of divine creation pouring out of his eyes and it’s…quite terrifying.
Early on old Tom warns the young man not to fight with the seagull, because it’s bad luck. When the young man scoffs, old Tom slaps him, hard, to the young man’s shock. When he stands, it’s pretty ominous. Of course almost everything in this flick is shot in low light, and it’s in black and white so it already looks like it happened a thousand years ago, but this scene is particularly amazing, when Pattinson stands up stunned and angry, and his shadow looms up equally angry behind him; looming over Winslow and over old Tom. Tom apologises because he sees the same thing we see; that young Winslow is very capable of murder.
After Winslow murders the seagull, a storm brews which threatens the lighthouse for days on end, at about the time when a boat is meant to collect them at the end of their month on duty. It’s after this, and a couple of times by now, that old Tom curses Winslow to a Promethean fate, using a whole bunch of archaic verbiage and ye olde worldy language meant to recall a simpler time when people dared not mock the gods for fear of the sternest retribution.
Prometheus in the old Greek myths stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity, and for that was punished to an immortal fate worse than death: Chained to a rock, every day having his liver ripped out by an eagle, every night having it grow back, the sequence recurring ad infinitum.
The divine fire gave both light and heat to humanity, but also allowed it to rise out of the darkness of ignorance and I’m sure a bunch of other metaphors that guarantee we should be eternally grateful for his sacrifice. Here, Winslow wanting to ‘steal’ the light of the lighthouse just by wanting to see it, and for being a bit of a random arsehole, prompts old Zeus / Tom to curse the young man to the same fate twice over.
Does it work? Well, you’ll have to sit through this like I did to find out the totally unsurprising ending. Of that all I’ll say is that Winslow eventually gets to see the light, and screams the screams of the damned before enjoying the only ending a film like this could have, which is shocking yet appropriate.
I would be lying if I said I was riveted the whole time by what I was watching, by what they were doing or saying. For long stretches not overwhelmed with ominousness or portentous pronouncements, it chugs along in a perplexing way, as you watch two actors do a bunch of nutty stuff that probably wasn’t in any script. Some of it’s amusing. Some of it is eye-rolling. I have no doubt all of the people involved got to make exactly the film they wanted to make, and for that, you know, a big thumbs up. There’s a bit where they’re both yelling “What?” at each other for what felt like 20 minutes, and it gave me a laugh out loud, but it might have been out of embarrassment.
About the only level on which the film cannot, at all, by any stretch of the imagination, be criticised negatively is the cinematography. By all the gods the look of the film is staggering. It’s not just that it’s made in black and white. The shot compositions and the weight of the visuals is astounding. Jarin Blaschke, the cinematographer, should have won all the awards for this.
But no-one else. The Lighthouse is definitely an arresting experience on a lot of levels. I don’t know that it says that much that’s that interesting about men in general or toxic masculinity specifically, but it is at least often amusing in the depths it finds to sink. In such a time of plague such a place doesn’t seem like it would be that bad, but, as always, it’s about who you bring along with you, and how long you can last before one of you wants to kill the other. Just like most holidays.
7 reasons why The Lighthouse is good for a while but drives you mad eventually out of 10
“And I'm damn-well wedded to this here light, and she's been a finer, truer, quieter wife than any alive-blooded woman.” – sounds like a very one-sided relationship – The Lighthouse