“The Lighthouse”: Did’st Thou See the Great White Light?

The Lighthouse!

Normally I feel like using a movie poster as a review’s lead image is taking the easy way out, but I find this one utterly mesmerizing and can’t let it go.

It’s that time of year again, when studios release all their film-festival acquisitions in the final quarter of the year in hopes of gaining some awards-based prestige as aesthetic compensation for their previous nine month’s worth of amusement-park spectacles and cheap crowd-pleasing fare. Truly indie companies and corporate-equivalent farm teams alike rush to compete for the same two or three backrooms at every multiplex — those screens snuggled in the way, way back of the building with like smaller screens, 20-30 seats, and the distinct feeling that you could probably get away with murder in there and no employee would ever notice. In the summer those screens are usually reserved for Marvel movies going on their twentieth week in release.

Many markets aren’t large enough to offer that much accommodation to tinier, pluckier cinematic gems. For the past decade Indianapolis has had one (1) theater more diligently dedicated above all the rest to showcasing the rare, the quirky, and the severely underfunded. Naturally it’s on the most affluent side of town far from our little hovel, but from time to time I’m happy to put in the mileage to trek up there. Plans are afoot to literally triple Indy’s art-house options by the end of 2020, which will be awesome if they come to pass. For now, there’s just the one. Sometimes the other, larger theaters pitch in, but nowhere nearly as consistently.

Speaking of truly singular things: that brings us to The Lighthouse, the new film from writer/director Robert Eggers. His feature-film debut, 2015’s The Witch, was a lovingly crafted artisanal piece that relished its archaic speech patterns, throwback cinematography, precipitous descents into the bottomless pits of human sin, endings that give the audience nightmares for weeks, and mean-spirited animals. To that extent his sophomore exploit The Lighthouse feels familiar, a summary rejection of how today’s movies are “supposed” to be made in favor of exploring roads rarely taken anymore, using methods they probably don’t teach in film school anymore, and with the most disturbing demeanor conceivable.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Academy Award Nominee Willem Dafoe is Thomas Wake, an 1890s Atlantic-coast lightkeeper (or “wickie” in ye olde parlance) who’s been at the job for at least decades if not longer, who’s basically the old sea captain from The Simpsons. He has a firm routine in place and strict guidelines as to how the job should be done, carefully formulated through ages of experience. He has a system and it works and should therefore not be messed with. Also, he has a proclivity for spending the occasional evening naked in front of the light, just staring into its core with a beatific look on his face and risking blindness for the sake of blessedly transgressive transcendence. Because even when being a hermit is your day job, you still gotta have your hobbies. And your secrets.

Wake is the only permanent employee on location. Rotating into the sidekick position for a four-week shift is former teen heartthrob Robert Pattinson (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) as Ephraim Winslow, a former lumberjack seeking a change in career track. He glowers more than he talks, but he’s willing to do the job despite the interminable hours, the harsh living conditions, the numbing repetition, and the burden of living 24/7 with Poopdeck Pappy. Naturally he brings his own secrets.

Winslow toils. The sea roils. The tension coils. The light demands its oils. Blood boils and rage broils as the men begin to royally get on each other’s nerves. Dank isolation begets emotional strain, which gives way to haunting hallucinations, or perhaps to supernatural peculiarities. It depends on what’s exactly in those bootleg alcohols they’re not supposed to be chugging on the job. Macho madness and scarring imagery ensue well before any secrets come to light.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Those two are basically it. The end credits confirm eight or nine living humans on screen in all, only three of which are credited on IMDb as of this writing. Two faces are key symbols, nearly silent ones, while a few nominal bodies are present for the changing of the lighthouse guard at the start. Otherwise it’s all Pattinson versus Dafoe, which takes on new dimensions if you pretend the whole affair is a vampire showdown between Edward Cullen and Nosferatu from Shadow of the Vampire.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? The Lighthouse was shot in black-and-white on 35mm film in old-fashioned aspect ratio and with mono sound. While those qualities were The Way Things Are Done back in cinema’s early days, Eggers opts to revisit their techniques like he’s auditioning for residency in The 1900 House. The end result is nautical noir, all shadows and light, illuminated by — or overlooked by — that all-seeing eye atop the tower. Light creeps in through cracks, casting knowing glances upon anxiety and desperation and eventually all-out psychodrama.

And if you’re going back to those days of classical literature, you can’t go wrong plumbing the depths of time-honored themes such as:

  • Obsession with objects greater than ourselves! Wake isn’t far removed from Captain Ahab, except he’s an Ahab whose Moby Dick is caged up where he can kneel before him and bask anytime he wants. Instead of a ship he’s got his lighthouse where he’s the big guy in charge. In turn, he’s a devoted servant of the white light rather than a dogged pursuer of the white whale. Winslow doesn’t get his obsession, but also can’t help wondering what the big deal is. Thus does another man’s obsession threaten to become his own.
  • Man vs. Nature! The Witch had Black Phillip; The Lighthouse has seagulls. They might be reincarnated sailors returned to judge the living. They might be Satan’s spawn, much like the Canadian geese who regularly befoul our neighborhood sidewalks. When Winslow isn’t chafing under Wake’s strict rules, he’s dealing with stink-eye from their avian neighbors, heedless of the possibility that their enmity could escalate beyond mere staring contests and into unchecked savagery. When their accusatory gazes aren’t unnerving enough, Mother Nature has bigger, badder accomplices to sic upon man: the unforgiving sea and the waves that will slap the impudent down without hesitation.
  • Man vs. Man! Wake cannot run the lighthouse alone, but that doesn’t make his assistants equal partners. He prefers to keep the company of the light that cannot disappoint him as the company of man invariably has. But as we soon learn, humans were never meant to live alone. As we’ve learned in recent times, isolation and excommunication from normalizing group experiences can wreak unkind havoc upon a precarious mental state.
  • Forgotten words portend symbolic significance! Though the vocabulary is a century ahead of The Witch‘s Yorkshire patois, it’s still endearingly pretentious enough that “protean” and “Promethean” worm their way into the same soliloquy, and foreshadow an ending straight out of myth, with a bringer of light brought low albeit with no heroes around to labor for their salvation from lasting torment by nature’s capricious discipline. By which I mean, sometimes I really dig forays into the pretentious.
Lighthouse! Spookity!

Our cast gazes upon the fickle ocean while behind them lurks the watchful eye of Steampunk Robot Sauron.

Nitpicking? If you somehow convince yourself to stop paying attention to the visual experiment unfolding before your eyes, you may notice some plot points are less startling and more predictable than others. Thomas’ biggest secret is left ambiguous and therefore nearly meaningless except as a perfunctory MacGuffin, while Ephraim’s dark past is unhappy but…not shockingly traumatizing? Pretty benign, as dark secrets typically go. Not like his present is, to be sure.

When stepping farther back, pattern recognition kicks in and passing resemblances to the arc of The Witch become a drawback, concern that Eggers risks carving a rut for himself if his next six films (fingers crossed) traverse across the human history timeline but keep following the same general downward spiral.

Also, I’m not convinced Pattinson’s accent stayed on course all the way through, though perhaps that was merely a part of his character’s shifty nature. On a related note, when Dafoe reveals Wake’s name, to my ears his accent rendered it as “Wick”. My first distracting reaction was that this seemed far too on-the-nose for a wickie; that thought was quickly pushed aside by the compulsion to formulate the perfect John Wick joke in response. Alas, there were none to be had.

As someone whose hearing isn’t the best, I was relieved that I think I only misunderstood or didn’t catch maybe 5-10% of what was actually said. I worry that Eggers’ next project, potentially a 10th-century Viking saga, may be all gobbledygook to me and unwatchable without subtitles if he goes too hardcore hyper-authentic.

So what’s to like? Dafoe and Pattinson each bring an unfettered ferocity to their respective roles, each intensifying against his opponent on an even keel, parrying and lunging like duelists in the fight of their lives. The increasingly chaotic sea sometimes goads them, sometimes sends them to their corners, sometimes threatens to lay waste to them both. Whether it’s a clash in acting methods or the 31 years’ age difference between them, their deteriorating mental states and the inevitable face-off had me on edge of my seat wanting to…well, to see harder what would happen next.

In particular, Dafoe has arguably the trickier role to convey, the salty sea dog (complete with pipe! possibly corn-cob!) who’s tough to watch with a straight face at first, as if we’re viewing his audition reel for Pirates of the Caribbean 6. But it’s not long before his vehement and utterly unironic dedication to the role steamrolls over any objections and reminds us that once upon a time, there really were scruffy seaborne fellows who talked, lived, judged, and harangued lesser men in exactly those grizzled tones.

I’m also a huge fan of black-and-white works — whether on screen or in comics, among its few accepted bastions in recent generations — when the color scheme isn’t an involuntary restriction or a cost-cutting measure, but a purposeful palette choice for crafting indelible moments of stark contrasts and chiaroscuro glory. Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (also a Witch collaborator) turn every inch of The Lighthouse into my kind of enthralling visual jam. Theirs is a world where Stygian darkness and electric brilliance collide and stab into each other’s hearts as much as our two leads do. One can overwhelm the other and consume all within their path, and none of the colors of the rainbow are there to guide anyone to familiar safety.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after The Lighthouse end credits, but we do confirm some of the birds were stock footage, while others were filmed by a dedicated Seagull Unit. Eggers also gives special thanks to the authors and works that most inspired his latest round of stylized olde-tyme dialogue — actual lightkeeper diaries from the period, 19th-century novelist Sarah Orne Jewett (who of course we never learned about in school), and naturally Herman Melville.

If it helps, anyone concerned about the Moby Dick comparisons can rest assured the film does not spend 300 pages of screenplay describing in excruciating detail how a lighthouse works. Not in the theatrical version I saw, at least. No guarantees here about any future director’s cut.

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