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Film Review: The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse (2019; Directed by Robert Eggers)

The Lighthouse, the second film from Robert Eggers, is a mesmerizing, ambiguous descent into madness, as spare and bare as it is fulsomely baroque. As in his debut feature The Witch, an intense, deliciously-living tale of witchcraft, sin, and judgment set in Colonial New England and likewise distributed by acclaimed independent film house A24, Eggers pits weak and flawed humans against the inscrutable enormity of the natural world and the superstitious myths that render it apprehendable (though no less terrible) to the mind and the soul. That wilderness and the tall tales woven in order to give it intelligible form operate as a metaphorical mirror for the weakness and self-doubt of the puny people who toil fruitlessly against it, for the fickle, unknowable whims of an almost certainly absent God who has left the fates of his creations to the ravenous pagan deities and bestiary that his coming was imagined to have banished, and maybe even for the ugly, consumptive decline of American empire itself.

The Witch drew nearly all of its dialogue directly from 17th-century sources, including transcripts of New England witch trials. Eggers adds a similar title card to the credits of The Lighthouse, citing inspiration for the florid period language used by its characters (Eggers co-wrote the script with his brother Max) from Herman Melville’s work, lighthouse keepers’ journals and logs, and especially the writings of late-19th-century Maine poet and novelist Sarah Orne Jewett. It’s shot on 35mm film and in black-and-white by Jarin Blaschke, also Eggers’ cinematographer on The Witch, and presented in an odd, outdated 1.19:1 aspect ratio (ie. the fim’s frame is basically a square, rather than the customary widescreen letterbox format) rarely used in feature films since the early 1930s (Fritz Lang used it on his seminal films Sunrise and M, the latter’s claustrophobic darkness an arguable influence on this film). Mark Korven is credited with the film’s score, but the sonic environment is dominated by the station’s ominous, unearthly foghorn which ever blares away its deep groan of doom.

All of this visual and aural anachronism (so suggestive of the work of Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin in key ways that Eggers should almost cut the Winnipegger into his film’s grosses) makes The Lighthouse‘s tale of two late-1800s American lighthouse-men (known as “wickies”) stranded on an isolated rock as a storm and insanity both descend on them (a story adapted from a real incident involving two stranded Welsh wickies in 1801) all the more hypnotic and unsettling. They are salty maritime veteran Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and rookie Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). Wake was a sailor for decades but pivoted to lighthousing due to a gammy leg, while Winslow is on his first assignment with the United States Lighthouse Establishment after leaving off lumberjack work in Canada with suspicious suddenness.

Left alone by a tender on the deserted rock isle for what is supposed to be a four-week turn, Wake and Winslow settle into a power-dynamic pattern of command and control, tension and release. The elder sea-dog Wake is the superior, and he consigns nearly all of the back-breaking manual labour to the younger Winslow, accompanying it with capricious whims of power and threats of garnished wages to assert his authority in the face of Winslow’s occasional insubordinate pushback. Meanwhile, Wake is secretive with the keeper’s logbook and the tending of the saturating light itself, forbidding Winslow from so much as setting foot on the top level next to the lighthouse’s rapturous, glow-emitting fresnel lens. Wake speaks in thick, sea-lore-specked nautical slang (Dafoe is a delightful marvel, and perfectly cast), sprinkling Winslow with dire warnings of bad omens and hoary curses of ocean mythology like bursts of sea spray. But this bad-cop act is balanced by attempts at good-cop comradery with his companion over meals and, after bad weather prevents a boat with relief crew from reaching them, over excessive amounts of alcoholic drink.

Winslow, for his part, is eroded by frustration and toil, physical, mental, and otherwise. He endures the thousand pinprick humiliations of Wake’s fluctuating tyranny but they wear him down, fray his edges, compel rebellion. He is tormented by a particular belligerent seagull (in their first meeting, Eggers’ centers Winslow and the bird in the two-shot edit, coyly framing them as equal antagonists), until he finally snaps and shockingly fails to heed Wake’s maritime-wisdom prognostication that it is bad luck to kill a seabird, as they contain the souls of men lost at sea. Perhaps like that of the previous junior wickie, who Wake claims went mad and killed himself.

But psychosexual dissatisfaction and sublimated homoerotic desire (one drunken-dance embrace between the men nearly becomes a tantalizing kiss) rage through these more mundane agonies. Eggers remarks in the film’s press kit that “Nothing good can happen when two men are left alone in a giant phallus”. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a lighthouse is just a lighthouse. But definitely not in this movie. A nude Wake is shown deriving euphoric sexual ecstasy from the heavenly light of the fresnel lens at the lighthouse’s pinnacle that only he may access. Meanwhile, Winslow, locked out of this ecstatic holy/sexual heaven, self-pleasures pathetically in a grimy supply hut to the figure of a scrimshaw mermaid and half-hallucinatory visions of flesh-and-blood sirens that he may or may not have actually encountered on and around the island, a turning shot of the lighthouse ending in vertical orientation pruriently associated directly with his erect male member.

Winslow’s denial of access to the beacon becomes metaphorical in myriad ways, a potent symbol of Wake’s power over him in numerous facets that keep him at a distance from satisfaction, belonging, meaning. Wake is also visually identified with the lighthouse itself, looming nude and terrible over Winslow in an indelible vision, a beam of light from the old man’s eyes shining on the younger man’s face. Wake is further personified as Neptune/Poseidon, the classical god of the sea, on a couple of occasions, tentacles writhing and strangling Winslow after one of their boozy tussles. But Winslow’s bedevilment eventuates not merely from external forces like his mean boss or the terrifying enormity of the sea or existential lonesomeness or even the dark truth of his past, but from the internal as well. When it is revealed that Winslow’s real Christian name is, like Wake, also Thomas (he stole the identity of a dead colleague in the northern woods), an element of crisis of identity and self is introduced into The Lighthouse, suggesting that the conflict and struggle between the two Thomases (the concurrence of the names is also a detail drawn from the tragedy of the Welsh keepers of 1801) is a conflict and struggle within Winslow himself (one almost anticipates a Fight Club-style reveal of Thomas Wake being a schizophrenic delusion and Winslow truly being alone, but that’s not it, bud).

If any lingering thread of doubt dangles loose in your mind concerning the actorly skills of the one-time sparkly-vampire heartthrob Pattinson, bear witness to The Lighthouse and banish said doubt forthwith. His transformation here is revelatory, thrusting beyond the quiet, self-contained man of few words that arrives at the lighthouse (a role he has played before, and pretty well) into a figure more primally desperate and id-driven. His interplay with Dafoe (besides Valeriia Karaman as the literally wordless mermaid, they are the only credited actors in the film) is extremely complex and often ambiguous; their conflict runs hot and cold, with widening fissures and almost tender rapprochements. Hallucinatory horrors of sea-lore aside, The Lighthouse is surprisingly realistic and insightful about the psychological and behavioural rhythms of men forced to live in isolated proximity.

For all of the stylistic, technical, and thematic similarities with The Witch noted at the outset, The Lighthouse is a distinct work in important ways as well. It’s much more of a claustrophobic chamber piece, with its two caged beasts of men tearing themselves and their small, limited world apart. Eggers employs intermittent shots of swirling, crashing ocean waves and begins and ends The Lighthouse with fades out of and into smothering fog. And yet the sea, by far the greater and more dangerous force, does not quite summon the dread anticipation and oppressive psychological and spiritual encroachment of the woods that press upon the Pilgrim family in The Witch. Although supernatural elements here like the shrieking mermaids and the pagan god of the sea and the impish seagulls function much as the titular witch and the billy-goat Black Phillip and the Great Satan himself in The Witch, their metaphorical profile is more pronounced, their place in the lived reality of the historical context less assured. There is never a modicum of doubt in the minds of the Pilgrim family in The Witch that the Devil and his malevolent servants are terribly tangible and frightening immediate threats to their physical safety as well as to their mortal souls, while Winslow consistently questions and dismisses Wake’s oceanic mythology and superstitious superstructure, dubbing them tall tales and even (self-reflexively) calling him out as an Ahab-ian self-parody of a crusty old seaman.

In a related way, The Lighthouse resonates less with deep political subtext than Eggers’ debut. The convincing historical context that it builds up is more of a side-story, a footnote in the American story with less pregnant meaning than that of Colonial-era America. Its focal-point themes of male power dynamics, psychosexual dominance, and even harmful alcoholism are stronger than any hint of political applicability. This is not to say that The Lighthouse is a lesser film than its director’s prior effort. In many ways, it is stronger, more focused and more boldly, gleefully provocative in its writing, performances, and especially in its imagery. Perhaps nothing good can happen when two men are left alone in a giant phallus, but if a film as memorably strange, evocative, and troubling as The Lighthouse is the result, then it can’t be all bad.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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