Two men arrive on a lonely island to run the lighthouse in this psychological horror story that will have you researching its secrets
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Running time: 110 minutes
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
By Jay Stone
When the lights went up — if not exactly on — at the end of a recent screening of The Lighthouse in a downtown Ottawa theatre, you could see the 25 or so members of the audience wordlessly turn to look at one another. No one said anything, but there were a couple of dry laughs that sounded like those grunts of understanding that some people use ironically to signify bafflement.
The Lighthouse is that kind of movie. It has inspired a dozen or so websites with titles like “The Lighthouse Ending Explained” that talk about seafaring tales (ocean monsters, mermaids, that lesson in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner about not killing sea birds) and Greek myths, particularly the story of how Prometheus stole fire from the gods and was punished by being tied to a rock and having his liver eaten by an eagle in perpetuity.
And that is only the beginning of what’s going on in Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch (2015), another early American horror story, that one about a small band of people in 17th Century America surrounded by superstition and evil. In The Witch the danger lurked in the forest; in The Lighthouse it’s in the crashing waves of a grey ocean, made darker by the fact that the film is in black and white and the frames are squished into an almost-square aspect ratio. This is a movie that would have fit perfectly on your old Philco TV set; it’s not in Cinemascope, it’s in inemascop.
This adds to the claustrophobia of a story about two men — Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), an old sea dog, and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a landlubber recently hired to be his assistant — who man an isolated lighthouse on a small island off the coast of New England in the 1890s. You know how oppressive things are going to get in the first five minutes when Winslow climbs the narrow stairs to his room and bangs his head on the ceiling. There are many more metaphorical banged heads to come.
Winslow is assigned the menial tasks, including cleaning out the chamber pots — which involves carrying bowls of human waste along uneven rocks through howling spray to dump the contents into the ocean — shoveling coal, and dangling precipitously from the top of the tower to paint it so white, it “sparkles like a sperm whale’s pecker,” in Wake’s instruction.
Wake is another matter. An imperious bully and pitiless taskmaster, Dafoe plays him with the rich growl we have always associated with life on the briny deep. He reminded me of a coarse version of none other than — I am both pained and delighted to report —Captain Highliner, the old commercial spokesman for frozen fish who used to ask, “Have you ever been to sea, Billy?” Wake mumbles arcane orders in language that is vaguely biblical (“Get to work, says I”) and jealously guards access to the light itself, a blinding beam that turns with a loud creaking noise that sounds like the opening of God’s own crypt.
The light means something as well; cinematic scholars may find parallels to the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey that stood for something grand and unknown and magnetic to a group of stranded men (and also inspired its own explanatory websites.)
The people in The Lighthouse are more fragile, however; they fight and argue and occasionally dance, and there are moments when you’re not sure of Wake is a real person or a figment of Winslow’s loneliness, or perhaps insanity. Wake says his previous assistant went mad, and as The Lighthouse becomes more unhinged, you’re drawn into dark speculations about what is real and what is imagined. Have they been on the island for weeks or days? We think we see one man chasing the other, but then they say it was the other way around. In a way, we too are abandoned on the lonely rocks.
There is also a homoerotic aspect to The Lighthouse, a feeling that amid the squalor of the island’s peeling buildings the men are drawn by some kind of hidden sexuality. Wake appears to man the lighthouse in the nude, and Winslow has visions of a mermaid as he hides in the island’s storage shed and masturbates.
Eggers, who also co-wrote the script, is slowly fashioning a fascinating and difficult oeuvre that relies on old New England superstitions and prejudices to plumb the dark — although sometimes grimly funny — lives of people on the edges of civilization. The Lighthouse isn’t a film you can digest right away; it’s a movie to talk about later, and enjoy, or shrink from, at your leisure. It’s meant to shiver your timbers. It’s something to look up.
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