It’s not very often that a film leaves me wanting to know more about it, yet at the same time, completely and utterly satisfied with most everything I’ve seen onscreen. In fact, searching my memory for examples now, I can only come up with a couple: Brazil (Terry Gilliam’s superb dystopian fantasy, which has to stand as his greatest filmmaking achievement) and both Godfather films (I prefer to think that the third one doesn’t exist). Now, another picture finally joins those ranks too: Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, which has left some—including my dad—a bit bewildered. I’ve seen it twice now, and even plan to rewatch it some more in the future.
For more mainstream audiences, something as bizarre and ambiguous as this may be all too easy to dismiss it as muddled, “weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird” arthouse slop. Doing so, however, would be ignoring how flawlessly crafted, masterfully written, and gorgeously shot this beautifully haunting nightmare is. Whether you end up loving or hating this movie, it’s not going to be leaving your head anytime soon.
A large part of this beauty rests on the film’s stunning B&W cinematography (aided by 8k and 9k HMI lights throughout, since natural light couldn’t suffice); spectral, minimalist score by Mark Korven (who also did the music for Eggers’ previous—and first—full-length film, The VVitch); and, in the director’s own words, “narrow, vintage” 1:19:1 aspect ratio, which heightens the tight claustrophobia rising with every second.
Even when the ship carrying Ephriam Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) first disembarks on the island to which they’ll be tending to for the next four months, you can already sense some real tension between them. When a storm maroons them both, however, their trust, companionship, and sanity all go in places neither of them could have ever imagined—that is, really, really bad places.
Summarized like this, The Lighthouse’s plot may not sound like anything new at all (in fact, the real-life incident which the film is partly based off was even adapted for the big screen before, in a 2016 indie flick—yes, also named The Lighthouse—that got a little praise, but faded from everyone’s minds quite quickly). On the contrary, it’s actually one of the most strange, unpredictable, and utterly original horror stories I’ve seen in quite a long time.
Admittedly, upon a first watch, I was enchanted with the film, but also left just a little bit disoriented. In an “isolated-location” horror film like The Shining, the line between reality and fantasy was always pretty clear, no matter how crazy things got. Here, it barely even exists, resulting in a number of moments that will either leave you mesmerized or throwing your hands up in confusion. A second watch did help me get a better grasp on what was going on, but the film still isn’t easy to follow or understand at all.
None of these things are meant as criticisms (though I’ve understandably heard a few people using them that way). In fact, this refusal to adhere to any traditional story structure, or easily answer the questions it puts into viewers’ minds, is exactly what makes The Lighthouse so special and unique in today’s jumpscare-driven culture. Even the characters’ thick accents—which, on that second viewing, I reluctantly had to put on subtitles for in many places—are extraordinarily purposeful for its entire experience, and make the 1890s setting that much more authentic and believable, despite the budget of only $4 million. (In another director’s hands, this might have resulted in some noticeable limits on what could be shown or told. In this case, however, none of those limits are ever visible, and every single effect looks nothing less than perfect. How Eggers managed to pull that off is something I’ll probably never know.)
Without not one, but two fantastic lead performances, this whole tapestry wouldn’t take long to fall apart. Thankfully, both Pattinson and Dafoe are more than up to the task, pushing their incredible acting skills to the very limit while playing these dark, troubled souls. However, it’s perhaps Dafoe’s role as an old, superstitious seaman that seals the film’s masterpiece status.
Watching him fully embrace such a proudly “Captain Ahab”-esque character is nothing short of a joy, and the scenarios in which he’s placed never fail to please or startle. Without a single trace of irony, that lobster scene has to rank among the most terrifying moments in the entire film, simply because of how much Dafoe puts into his ultimate vocal retaliation there. Prove me wrong.
On that note, I’ve already stated before that The Lighthouse won’t resonate with everyone, but a complaint about it that particularly irks me is that it’s “not scary”. Of course, whether something scares you or not is completely subjective, but the film itself isn’t even close to your typical “scary movie”. If anything, it hews far closer to a pitch-black comedy/psychological horror blend—albeit a very abnormal one—than a straightforward horror flick. Instead of dumb CG monsters randomly leaping towards the screen, there isn’t just a genuinely eerie sense of atmosphere, but also a surprisingly large amount of black humor.
And indeed, this humor makes the film’s depths surprisingly accessible, even purely entertaining. Despite the narrative’s bleak and oblique nature, Eggers isn’t afraid to work flatulence and excrement jokes into the men’s daily routines, or even have them dance together over a few bottles of alcohol. This not only helps these characters feel like actual flesh-and-blood people, but also manages to make the film’s intricacy far more palatable than it would otherwise be.
So what is The Lighthouse really about? Originally, I was just going to say something like “order descending into chaos, the logical becoming illogical, the real becoming surreal” but that’s too shallow a reading of such a wonderfully complex film. What it is really about, to put it shortly, is the guilt that these men carry with them, and the greed and power they persistently try wielding over each other. Getting into much more detail would probably be crossing into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that there’s far, far more to both Ephriam and Thomas than it may seem on the surface.
For instance, although Robert Eggers himself dismisses such readings*, and although Winslow is shown to have graphic sexual fantasies about a mermaid he stumbles across one day (whether that’s actually imagined or not is, of course, left completely unclear), strong homosexual undertones run rampant between the protagonists—so strong, in fact, that their drunken forms even come close to kissing, only to pull away in disgust at the very last second. Classical mythology also plays a major role in the film’s events, particularly in the case of the “light” at the lighthouse’s top that Thomas never lets Ephriam into, as well as (I’d argue) the seagulls—animals that Thomas believes carry the souls of dead sailors—that persistently agitate the latter man towards the beginning.
Obviously, the Academy snubbing The Lighthouse as much as they did (they gave it a “Best Cinematography” nomination, and that’s literally it) proves two things: 1) they really, really hate horror/psychological thriller movies for some reason, and 2) as a result, they can almost never recognize great horror/psychological thriller movies when they see them. I say “almost” because Parasite deservedly brought home four Oscars (including “Best Picture”), but there’s still a lot more work to be done before such a revered organization can truly honor the best of future years’ cinema. Films like this one deserve it.
*Eggers’ full quote on the matter: “Am I saying these characters are gay? No. I’m not saying they’re not either. Forget about complexities of human sexuality or their particular inclinations. I’m more about questions than answers in this movie.”