“What’s better than this? Just guys being dudes.”
–Steve Addazio, Boston College
The premise to The Lighthouse is simple. Two guys, one small island, and the monotony of tending to the titular beacon of light. In a lesser director’s hands, this would be a by-the-numbers isolationist thriller with two characters unable to discern what is real and what’s all in their heads. Luckily for us, this story falls into the hands of one of the decades most unique voices in horror, Robert Eggers.
Eggers freshman outing into feature-length territory was 2015’s The Witch (or, The VVitch if you’re in the know), an atmospheric period piece that seemed to both enthrall and divide audiences. His intense dedication to developing the dialect of a 1630s New England family makes this an incredibly immersive film. Couple this with a slow-burning story of dread and sorrow, and you have one of the most uniquely terrifying pieces of film from the past few years.
The Lighthouse is no different from The VVitch in these aspects, as Eggers has once again delicately and deliberately crafted a masterwork of horror that goes above and beyond what the basic idea may bring to the table. Borderline incoherent conversing is back once again, as Eggers implores hours of painstaking research into the crafting of the 19th century sea shanty singing sailors. The pacing of the two films draw some parallels as well. The Lighthouse is in no rush to get crazy. Because of this, every ounce of insanity that the film oozes feel rightfully earned as a natural progression of the story. Time feels like it both drags on and sprints ahead and breakneck speed, leaving you feeling just and disoriented as the tenders of the lighthouse.
There are but two poor souls stuck on this wretched rock. Robert Pattinson portrays Ephraim Winslow, a man looking to earn his keep as a wickie. Pattinson has been in an uphill battle over the past few years to claw his way out of being eternally defined by the Twilightseries. Luckily for him, he’s done well to prove himself as more than a simple teenage heartthrob, owning complex and exciting roles in films such as Good Time and High Life, and has even earned his shot in upcoming blockbusters like Tenet and The Batman. Pattinson does a tremendous job as a man slowly spiraling into insanity, acting as both a clueless embodiment of the viewer and a man with his own secrets.
Pattinson does a fantastic job. You can’t take that away from him, but if we’re comparing the two performances, Willem Dafoe absolutely steals the show. Dafoe portrays Thomas Wake, the old, irritable keeper of the lighthouse who’s previous wickie went insane on the island and later died. While Pattinson’s performance is anchored by a slow descent into madness, Dafoe’s Thomas Wake may very well be embodied by madness from the very beginning. A superstitious and secretive former sailor, Dafoe immediately presents himself as a manic mastermind that controls his fellow caretaker into doing the dirty work of the island so he can tend to the almost mystical light of the lighthouse. Dafoe proves himself as a powerhouse of the industry, delivering long, uninterrupted monologues while blinking about five times the entire movie. Even though the New England dialect means you must listen even harder, I found myself hanging on every word of his. He is a man completely in control, or at least that’s how he wants to be seen.
Displayed in black and white and shot with a narrow aspect ratio of 1.19:1 (mimicking a certain titular tower), The Lighthouse is one of the most uniquely, hauntingly beautiful films of 2019. The set design, coupled with the cramped aspect ratio, perfectly encapsulates the claustrophobia of the close quarters the two men share. Partnered by this is a haunting soundtrack and eerie sound design. Foghorns are utilized in both throughout the film and are sure to drive you mad (in a good way).
As I’ve said before, the period piece takes a look at many timeless themes, such as alcoholism, power dynamics and sexuality. Toxic masculinity and the back and forth power struggle between two men desperately trying to be the alpha is perhaps the most obvious element to identify. Both men, in one way or another, is threatened by the other. Dafoe’s character demands that Pattinson’s clean every inch of their living quarters in attempt to keep him in a submissive state. Pattinson’s character likens this to being a “housewife”, which opens the floodgates further for discussions on the perception of gender roles.
As one may expect from two men being left on a rock for an extended period of time with nothing but alcohol to qualm their nerves (or, rather, enflame them) things get a bit…homoerotic. Honestly, who can blame them? Analysis of the movie’s imagery deduces that sex is at the forefront of both men’s minds, even if they do not realize it. Hell, is the lighthouse itself not one big phallus? However, the idea of “sex” being a theme isn’t as simple as “these two men are lonely”. Sex is a weapon, a vice. The isolation, and eventually desperation, that these two men go through drive them towards various forms of “lust” from one another. Admiration, control and leadership are all desires that spawn from the two men as their relationship begins to subtlety develop into a borderline marriage.
These men will use whatever they can as a weapon against one another, and their built-up frustrations of multiple varieties eventually implode into a disturbing climax that leaves you with perhaps more questions than answers. However, this is one of those films that can be analyzed and discussed for days on end, with various different interpretations likely to develop. I have never been one to need “definitive” answers to a story. If a film like this gave you all the answers, then what would you be left with? A good story, perhaps, but nothing to warrant any further thought.
The Lighthouse, for those willing to take the plunge, is a haunting piece of American Gothicism that takes inspiration from mythology of the past and retells it through the words of the American working man. If that sounds too pretentious for you, rest assured there is plenty of farts, violence and drunken tomfoolery to be had as well. It’s a one of a kind horror experience that dares to go against the framework for what many consider a horror movie. You won’t find yourself jumping and shrieking as you would with others, but if you’re willing to open your mind, you’ll be left with an unnerving, unrelenting symphony of marvelous madness that only the work of the truly passionate can produce. It won’t be for everyone, but it just might be for you.
Turpentine & Honey Cocktail
The Turpentine & Honey cocktail is a milk and honey style drink that utilizes whiskey, honey, and milk. I chose this drink because in The Lighthouse, Pattinson and Defoe eventually run out of alcohol and must create a concoction to get them drunk. This ends up being a potent blend of turpentine and honey. Since turpentine could poison and kill you, I’ve decided to steer away from that ingredient, but keep the name.
2 shots of scotch whiskey
3 spoons of raw honey
½ shot of honey liquor
¾ shot of single cream/ half-and-half
¾ shot of milk
- Add whiskey and honey to shaker. Stir to combine the two.
- Add ice honey liqueur, cream and milk. Shake well.
- Strain into chilled glass or over ice.
- Sprinkle cinnamon on top.