DIRECTED BY: Robert Eggers
THE FILM: I mean it’s a film set on a single location – the titular lighthouse – with only two characters, filmed in claustrophobic 33:1 aspect ratio black and white, how interesting can a movie with this many handicaps actually be..?
After seeing The Lighthouse I would argue… mostly. Mostly interesting.
The plot here is relatively simple. Two lighthouse keepers – an extra-salty “wickie” (a journeyman wick trimmer) and his subordinate – take a four week shift on a desolate rock and through their routines of work and drink find a lot about each other to dislike. Much like two giant Toho Studios monsters stuck on a rock together scrabbling for supremacy, blowing fire into each other’s eyes while at the same time being forced to feast at the same stone table together.
Without excellent actors The Lighthouse could have been a chore. Thankfully, Robert Eggers had the clout (thanks to The Witch’s critical success) and composure to select two of the smartest male actors still working in 2019 – Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow is the unknown quantity. Assuredly running from something on the mainland, there’s no reason for a man of his season and breeding to be locked away on a gloomy atoll for a month. Dafoe’s Thomas Wake is his superior, and suspicious of his underling, yet dogged in his drive to hammer the boy into a worthy Lighthouseman. In the evening the two gather around a small supper table and play round after round of intellectual tea-bagging over the fumes of the – apparently – distilled gasoline they drink mixed with Thomas Wake’s flatulence.
In fact, farts make up at least one third of the characters featured in this film. They are nearly the entire ambiance and charm package of The Lighthouse. The rest is grain alcohol consumption and cursing. And not in the modern sense of the verb. Actual, early nineteenth century cursing. As in damning another soul to be crushed under the weight of some false god’s cloven heel, cursing.
This is the (we can argue, talented) guy who wrote and directed The Witch after all. Another piece of New England folklore more easily digested with the subtitle option toggled to on. Robert Eggers is an absolute fiend when it comes to obsolete English grammar. There are speeches in this motion picture that would curl the feather vanes of Herman Mellvile’s quill. Robert’s a champion with the pen and a veritable almanac of the arcane.
Which is where his sophomore effort runs into trouble. The grisly, albeit inspired, imagery mixed with a grinding musical score by Mark Korven, hints that we’ve wandered into a metaphorical interpretation of some occult sea mythos. There has to be much more going on in The Lighthouse than what’s simply being presented to us – with the film’s glimpses of gorgeous sirens, sea gods, and demonic one-eyed gulls – but with Eggers’ vast knowledge of mythology and extinct folklore, one scholar in a hundred might be able to interpret what story he’s busy retelling.
I haven’t a clue however.
The Lighthouse could be an analogy for Prometheus, who stole Zeus’s fire and gave it to man, and who ended up chained to a barren rock and tormented by birds for eternity, (I think this interpretation is the only way to read the impenetrable final acts of the movie) or it could just as easily be a cinematic adaptation of ‘Blow the Man Down.’ It’s difficult to pinpoint what esoteric tale/song is being woven into this screenplay. One thing is absolutely certain – we simply cannot trust the narrative here. And this is completely by design. To a fault I’d argue.
Enigmas abound during the nearly two hour run time. What’s up with the locked wick room? Why does Thomas’s leg seem to heal then buckle depending on which scene he’s in? And just exactly whom of the two is the real Thomas? And how long is that God-cursed splitting axe going to stay buried in the kitchen table before one of these two picks it up to hew the other with?? These are all tasty morsels to chew on. Blended with the stark imagery and, admittedly substantial, sound score they give The Lighthouse an atmosphere of real mystery.
But who can solve it?
And maybe it was never meant to be solved really. Just pondered over endlessly. Most of the time I’d argue that this would be a puzzle worth picking through the pieces for. In The Lighthouse’s instance? I’m less convinced. Saying that, I still believe this is an actor’s set piece – a genuine thespian Garden of Eden. And for those into that particular art form, treasures abound on this rock.