My notes on The Lighthouse
In recent years, there’ve been several lighthouse-set horror films – Cold Skin, The Vanishing, Dark Beacon – and also a clutch of films featuring mermaids – The Lure, The Rusalka, Siren – so there must be something zeitegisty about this salty strain of maritime gothic, which Robert Eggers’ second feature plunges into head-first. After The Witch, Eggers and his co-writer brother Max weave together another tapestry of period language, delivered at full tilt by Willem Dafoe as a mad old seadog eventually matched in lunacy by Robert Pattinson as his number two, with credits citing Herman Melville, contemporary records and the novels of Sarah Orne Jewett (no, me neither) as sources for the high-flown yet believable talk that’s just one sound effect among many. The noises of flatulence, the crashing waves, cawing sea birds and trickling water are other notes in the symphony.
Shot in austere black and white and a square aspect ratio that perversely limits the possibility for widescreen seascapes and any sense of the verticality of the title structure, it’s a two-go-mad-together story which stretches out beyond the first act as nightmare overwhelms narrative. Veteran ‘wickie’ Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and replacement assistant Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) arrive at a desolate island to man the lighthouse for a month, and Wake delivers invective put-downs of his inexperienced minion while jealously guarding access to the light itself. Winslow, who turns out to be an imposter named Thomas Howard, is soon having visions of a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman) on the rocks and being pestered by a malicious gull which he batters to death in an Ancient Mariner reference. The month is up before the film’s a third of the way through, and the relief boat doesn’t come … whereupon, both men go mad, reveal their inner madness, or act out an eternal story that’s pretty much destined to end in violence, though there’s an erotic undercurrent to it all too.
It has astonishing moments – a vision of a naked Dafoe as a human lighthouse with a single shining eye forcing Pattinson to his knees – and a lot of disorienting effects, as when Wake informs the delirious Howard that stormy weeks have passed when he thinks it’s only been a day or so since the boat didn’t come and we only later wonder whether the older man is – ahem – gaslighting the younger … and a gabble of backstory about how Howard became Winslow almost literally gets lost in the wind, rain and bluster. Like The Witch, it’s about madness at a frontier beyond civilisation and externalises spiritual insanity as a demonic presence which is yearned for as much as feared … but this is a more blackly comic tale, with kinship to Beckett or Steptoe & Son, of men locked in a love-hate-despair situation from which even death is no escape. If nothing else, it’s the strangest lighthouse movie since Shh! The Octopus.