The Lighthouse Drives You Slowly And Steadily Insane

It’s been a slow movie-going period for me, these last few months. There’s been nothing I’ve been dying to see, and also I’ve been feeling overwhelmingly busy. Movies are long! You have to leave the house, commute there, get a little sick from the popcorn that you wolf down during the previews because you have no self-control, and then watch the whole movie, and finally commute home. It’s usually at least three hours of your day, maybe more if you’re smart and build in time for the subways to fail you. But, damn, is it fun to watch movies in theaters, and damn, if it isn’t a good time for movies. Every once in a while I’ll see two movies back-to-back that just reawaken my love of the flicks, and Parasite and now The Lighthouse do just that.

The Lighthouse opens as Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives on a small and remote island to begin a forty day tenure as a wickie alongside (or perhaps under) veteran wickie Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Ephraim is haunted by visions of logs, dead bodies, and mermaids. Though the men are reportedly supposed to split the duties Tom gives Ephraim all the hard physical labor, keeping to actual running of the light for himself, always. Tom proves a violent and cruel taskmaster. At night the men dine together, and Tom drinks, suddenly gregarious while Ephraim remains sullen. Eventually the men begin to open up to each other, though their growing openness and genuine connection does absolutely, absolutely nothing to abate the antagonism between them. As the forty days draw to a close a storm hits. Things get weirder, and worse.

I’m gonna say two things in a row that I know I’ve said before. 1) I think that what makes me so excited about Parasite and The Lighthouse is that they are just very good, which I know is a dumb thing to say. Of course the reason you like a movie is because you find it “good.” But that’s how I can best describe – they are both transporting movies that drag you in so entirely you stop thinking about anything but them, and then, once you walk out, you’re just bowled over by the sheer craft of it. 2) I focus overly on both story and plot, at the expense of talking up other technical aspects, but the plot of this movie is just so, so subtly clever.

The thing that works about The Lighthouse is how carefully and quietly it knocks the viewer off-kilter. The opening shots are eerie, and it’s clear from the first night on the island that something is… off. But what? Ephraim seems earnestly disinterested at first, though his curiosity occasionally gets the better of him. He’s here to do a job. Tom is more willing to engage in madness and tomfoolery, and he seems, at first, secretive and untrustworthy. But as we get deeper and deeper into the madness, the lines start to blur. As the movie begins to turn Tom insists a storm that Ephraim believes has just started has been raging for weeks, and that Ephraim is losing it. Subjectively we want to believe Ephraim… it feels like it just started? But time in the more “rationale” parts of the movie has already stopped and started, occasionally slowing and occasionally flying by. Ephraim accuses Tom of lying to fuck with him, and this feels in character too, but Tom doesn’t let up. It’s genius, because it gets us to question the scene, and retroactively question everything else. If, if, what we’re seeing here isn’t the truth, than subjectively we the audience have started to lose the thread. But if we’re only now realizing that we’ve lost the thread… when did we lose it in the first place? It’s fantastic, and as the madness escalates we are left only with more and more questions, and by the end of the film any conflicting accounts that the characters throw at each other feel equally plausible.

What’s also wonderful is that the film doesn’t give us anyone to particularly trust, while giving us people to vaguely root for. Both Pattinson and Dafoe are actors I frankly almost always enjoy, and they both deliver here, walking an incredible high-wire act of two men who both love and hate each other. They’re both filled with regret about how they’ve ended up where they are, and both intend to use to other as proof that they have worth, even if the only way they feel they can prove that worth is by destroying the other. “At least I’m not him.” It’s clear too, that they view each other as mirrors. And yet, and yet, they’re stuck on an island together, and at the end of the day they are more or less forced to love each other, maybe due to the similarities they see, maybe due entirely to circumstance and stockholm syndrome. The fact that they make these two antithetical feelings not only co-exist but make it evident that the hate and love stem from and feed off of each other, that the two feelings must co-exist to exist at all, is a tremendous testament to the writing, direction, and performance.

As always, I’ve left the technical aspects for last, but The Lighthouse excels in this arena as well. The first thing that jumps out at you is the sound – seriously, from the very first shot, the beating of waves as a ship plows through them, accompanied by the wailing of a siren, sets a rhythm that the film utilizes time and time again. The sound of the film is loud, aggressive, and relentless, and is echoed in the cinematography, particularly the scanning light from the lighthouse, which pans consistently over Pattinson every time he steps out for a nightly smoke, and sweeps over Dafoe in his tower. As the men grow increasingly unhinged so does the cinematography and editing, so that a shot of the lighthouse tilted on its side before spinning upright (which, in the trailer, looked a little showy and potentially goofy) passes only with a “that makes sense to me at this point.” The film starts as a slow boil, but wears you down so easily and so brilliantly that by the time the tension is ratcheting up by stupendous leaps it feels like the most natural thing in the world.

So what is all of this in service of? The Lighthouse is a stupendous film, but by keeping its mysteries alive until the very end, it holds its thematic cards close. Which is fine, honestly. It is a movie about what it means to be successful, and about toxic relationships and masculinity, but it’s also just about two men with personal demons stuck on an island together. More and more I’m drawn to the idea that movies are about the things they claim to be about on the surface, that the more specific and small they are the more universal they are. The Lighthouse is a grand movie, but it’s mostly about what it would mean if these two particular men were stuck on an island going insane together.

I give The Lighthouse 10 sea monsters out of 10 lobster traps.

OTHER THOUGHTS:

  • This movie is basically the Shining featuring two Jack Torrances, structurally, right down the an axe-based limping man finale.
  • Part of my evolution on horror movies (which I used to find terrifying but now thoroughly enjoy) is that they are in fact frequently extremely funny. Eggers’ previous film, The VVitch, was incredibly funny to me without once losing its terror, and The Lighthouse pulls off that feat once more.
  • The other thing I like about horror is that it deals with the numinous, the mysterious, both the horrific and the sublime. The Lighthouse keeps these elements alive through the finale without feeling like a cheat, which I always admire.
  • I have liked this film more with each passing day (another similarity with Parasite!).

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