The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers (2019)

This has been on my to-watch list since it was first released. It did not disappoint. Eggers’ second film after The Witch (which I loved, but neglected to write about), the Lighthouse started off as an adaptation of an unfinished Poe story by Eggers’ brother, Max, before Robert helped him out with a bit of the old “hey, I can actually get this made”. This led to it becoming rather less of an adaptation than merely a similarly-named piece of work.

I don’t know the Poe story. I do know a lot of Edgar Allan Poe, after studying him in sixth form (The Gothic Tradition, for which module I got 100%. Suck it), but I don’t know this one. Maybe, being unfinished, the tale didn’t make it into whichever anthology I was using.

Anyway, this is about two blokes who arrive on a “God-forsaken” island, to tend to a lighthouse for four weeks. The blurb on the case said something about them trying to maintain their sanity, which I wouldn’t quite call a spoiler, as you would imagine something had to happen. And it’s just about the two blokes! So it’s cosy, bordering on the claustrophobic, as they get to know each other and their foibles.

I won’t go through the plot: you’ve got Wikipedia for that. Besides, you should just watch the damn film. So I’ll talk about other things, like character, atmosphere and things wot it reminds me of.

I’ve seen a few David Lynch comparisons, and I guess I see that. But not to a great extent. The 4:3 (technically 1.19:1) aspect ratio, monochrome presentation, small cast and recurrent induatrial noise do put me in mind of Eraserhead (that was 4:3, right? I can’t remember. And I last watched it on a 4:3 telly anyway). But it’s not like it’s bloody Mulholland Dr. or anything.

I got way more of an Antichrist vibe from this, though. I mentioned that thought to a pal, and she said she felt the same thing, but decided that may only have been because it was in black and white, and starred Willem Dafoe. I had to then go back and check, as I didn’t remember Antichrist being in black and white. (It’s not.)

No, I think the comparisons go a little deeper than that. As well as being Dafoe tours-de-force, they are both (pretty much) two handers, featuring a pair of characters who are willingly away from the rest of society, together in an alien/alienating setting in which their emotions and psychological health are stretched to the limit. And both include hallucinations and stark, sometimes grim, imagery with a level of anthropomorphism thrown in. You’ve got the “chaos reigns!” fox of Antichrist replaced by the malicious gulls of the Lighthouse. I may be ham-fisted, but I’m not sufficiently on the nose to compare it to Hitchcock, don’t worry.

Despite the comparisons to Lynch and Von Trier, though, this is very much an Eggers film. As valid as I think the above parallels are, you can also look at a number of themes this film has in common with Eggers’ debut, the Witch. Again, you’ve got the relatively small cast, set aside from the rest of society, albeit with different degrees of willingness. Both films have a heavy, foreboding atnosphere, drenched in a sense of dread. You’ve got the fittingly non-time period of both films, though it is clear that both are set in an oldendaze America. And this commonality of setting allows the films to be so cut off, so bleak and also nurture superstition in the characters: whether we are thinking about people being witches, gulls carrying the souls of departed sailors or otherwise being hexed, superstiton and the unarticulated fear that accompanies it pervade both films.

So we get that Eggers has really delivered on setting here. But the characterisation is also excellent. Initially, Thomas Wake (Dafoe) is the dominant character in the pair, using his veteran status and tricks like making notes in his book to get the psychological upper hand over novice Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). As time passes, circumstances conspire against our plucky duo and sanity frays, it’s Winslow’s physical strength that makes the difference in the relationship. But there is a cameraderie, even (especially) in the madness, as the two oscillate between extreme distrust and drunkenly singing, dancing and telling tales.

As with Pulp Fiction and any number of other films, there is a mysterious object of obsession for the characters. Throughout, Winslow sees Wake staring into the titular light; even apparently worshipping it. Is salvation to be found in that artificial sun, or oblivion?

I loved this one. Girlfriend less so.* So I can see myself watching this again. Partly so I can try to understand it a bit better (as you would expect from the director and the company this film keeps, unrealiable protagonists, delusion and illusion are the order of the day), but partly because the monochrome gloom makes for a film as stylish as it is substantial. Feeling almost like his equivalent of a Valhalla Rising or Pi, Eggers’ next one is going to be big, I imagine…

* Girlfriend said the review should just read: “weird, weird, weird”.

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