In recent years, my reviewing habits have slowed down more than I would’ve liked, since entering the workforce it’s been hard to watch, think and write about films whilst also balancing work and personal lives. I’ve started to pick it up again in the last few months and the reason for this was The Lighthouse, because when I walked out of that first viewing I knew I wanted to write down my thoughts on this film and explain in great detail why it’s a goddamn modern masterpiece of isolationist horror.
Which given our current climate, this film hits a little closer to home now than I realized.
Set on a New England coast in the late 1800s, the film follows two lighthouse keepers, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a newcomer to the profession, and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), an old sea dog and long-time Wicky, as they settle in for their four week shift of looking after the lighthouse and keeping things running. Almost immediately, Wake takes advantage of being the boss and orders Winslow to do all the low-end jobs like fixing the roof and cleaning out the shitter while he takes the easy job of watching the light, which seems to have an otherworldly effect on Wake’s consciousness.
Unprepared and unknowing of the harshness of Wicky work, Winslow is attacked physically by work and mentally by the insane weather and even more insane ramblings of Wake and starts to hallucinate dead bodies and mermaids, all the while struggling to contain his frustrations over his shitty drunken boss and his own sexual urges. As the four weeks come and go with no sign of rescue and no sign of anymore rations, the two men are forced to resort to drinking copious amounts of alcohol – and later turpentine – to sustain themselves, while Winslow’s loss of time and space in this impossible island has him questioning what punishment is he suffering from and can he ever escape it.
This is the type of film that’s plot thin but story rich, if you try to look at the plot and just focus on what’s happening you won’t get much more than two men losing their minds in an uncomfortably humorous fashion. But once you start looking into the why and seeing the themes and back stories of Winslow and Wake and seeing how everything fits together, from loneliness to alcoholism to sexual frustration to mythology, you get something absolutely incredible. There’s not an easy A-To-B plotline here, time is messed about with in more ways than one, the drunken antics of the two leads can have them turn their emotions of a dime and Winslow’s near constant hallucinations make it difficult to even tell what’s real and what’s his messed up mind making up. But the trust that the film puts into its audience to put the pieces together themselves and everyone get something different out of the experience is brave and I applaud them for taking that route, there’s not one right answer as to what’s going on, be it real, imaginary or allegorical, and I loved that about the whole thing.
While there are some cameo appearances from Winslow’s old foreman and a beached mermaid with one of the biggest c**ts I’ve seen onscreen since David Cameron, this entire film is focused on Wake and Winslow. Dafoe takes on Thomas Wake and gives one of the best performances of his career. Wake is an old sea dog, he’s seen it all, done it all, and couldn’t give less of a shit about Winslow’s whining, he just wants to drink himself blind and spend his nights with his beloved light. But if that just sounds like a grumpy old man then let me tell you he’s a lot more sinister than that, Wake is a manipulator, a gas-lighter and abusive hiding away behind his old man behaviors, you can laugh at him for his constant farting and his nude embrace of the light but when pushed he doesn’t hesitate to remind Winslow of his place and even takes advantage of the situation to try and tell Winslow that he’s at fault for Wake’s misdeeds. Dafoe has this uncanny ability to make you hate and pity Wake in equal measures, in the film’s most famous scene when Winslow is ragging on his cooking skills, Dafoe has Wake close to tears trying to get Winslow’s approval before bursting into a two minute monologue where he seemingly embraces the Sea Gods and curses Winslow to an eternal pain. It’s an outstanding performance that lets Dafoe tap into that natural villain side he’s always had but being able to play with it, sometimes subtly, sometimes in your face but always interesting to see what way he’ll screw with Winslow next.
Pattinson as Winslow is probably his best role to date, almost certainly his bravest with him having to do a lot more masturbating here than I was prepared to witness. Winslow is a great character, he’s presented as our introduction into this world of lighthouse keeping and his frustrations at being forced to go all the time consuming, back-breaking work are easy to understand, especially once a one-eyed bastard seagull starts getting in his way. But the longer we spend with Winslow the more we see that there’s something more to him, his hallucinations clearly get worse as the film goes on with the mermaid getting more explicit with each new fantasy (or is it memory, I’m not sure), but his visions of dead bodies happen almost instantly after arriving so he’s got some guilt in his past which becomes a point of contention later in the film. More than that though, Pattinson taps into some perfect, furious anger that just build and builds and builds with each new issue, the inability to leave, the lack of food, the overabundance of drink, the jerking off in the shed to a wooden figurine because it’s the only sexual thing in 100 goddamn miles. He makes Winslow furious and owns it, it’s frightening to witness at times, and kind of funny at others since the complete lack of understanding what’s real and what’s not makes a lot of his drunken visions awkwardly hilarious. Both men slowly lose their mind during the course of the film, but it’s Pattinson’s decay that stands out for how well he embraces the madness in the latter stages.
After his slow-burning nightmare of The VVitch, I was all in for what Robert Eggers brought next and this did not disappoint. To the degree I am going to call this one of the best crafted horror movies since Alien, this is very much auteur filmmaking which might not be for everyone but it works wonders for what this film is doing. Just from a technical aspect this is some goddamn masterful work, the black and white screen adds to the old-timey feel whilst also working in tandem with the nearly square aspect ratio, during the day the white create a boxed in feeling, building claustrophobia which helps the isolationist feel of the whole thing while at night the blacks blend into the screen making it difficult to tell where reality ends and fantasy begins. Even the soundtrack with a constant foghorn in the background, coming and going at seemingly random times like a scream of the damned that permeates through the entire film is perfect for setting the tone for what’s to follow.
As great as the technical aspects are, its thematically where Eggers shine, for a film about two men and a lighthouse there’s so much more going on under the surface, the obvious being the madness brought about being cut off from civilization and drunk off your ass for weeks on end, there’s a good argument to be made that this is a horror movie where the horror doesn’t actually exist. It might do, but we’ve no real proof as to either side, all we know is that Winslow and Wake are stuck with each other and can only stand each other when they’re drinking and when they’re drinking that horror of being isolated gets even stronger. It’s a vicious cycle and one that’s absolutely fantastic to witness, even if it gets outright disturbing at times, particularly once the film starts touching upon certain questions about the nature of the lighthouse and the men’s place here. With the story of Prometheus being touched upon numerous times, and the ever present wonder of Purgatory being in the back of audiences minds, we don’t know what the Light represents or if it represents anything at all, but Eggers dangles just enough to make us think.
There’s also the element of homoeroticism to touch upon, hell the whole film has this undercurrent of uncomfortable sexuality thanks to Winslow’s fantasies of the mermaid, but when it comes to him and Wake the sexual tension is hard to ignore, hell the lighthouse itself is more than a little phallic in design. Both men have habits of voyeurisms, at first accidental that turn curious, in Winslow’s case catching Wake nude in front of the light, but that grows until both men are finding comfort in each other’s embrace whilst struggling to comprehend their hatred for each other. Wake hints his own loneliness during some of his insane ramblings and Winslow’s hallucination already show his frustrated libido so it’s no wonder than both men end up looking for companionship once the drink starts flowing but there’s a power-play going on under the surface. Both men are fighting for dominancy over the other, trying to make the other submit – towards the end there’s even a scene with dog-acting which more than proves the sexual nature of their arguments – and after a while you have to take a step back and wonder if these men are trying to f**k or kill each other, or both.
When I walked out of The Lighthouse after my first viewing I immediately gave it a 10, I was enraptured by the entire experience, I wan unnerved, I was confused and I laughed when I didn’t know if I should or not, and I wanted to talk to anyone and everyone I could. Now having seen it again knowing some of the thematic call-backs and foreshadowing, I’m even more convinced that Eggers has crafted something masterful. I was actually tempted to post a spoiler review on this just so that I could talk about it some more and how everything fits together, particularly in how the relationship between Wake and Winslow changes in the back-half of the film. But I’m holding back because I want people to take this film on their own merits, it’s a strange movie with its difficult plot progression, unsavory characters, and awkward subtext, but it’s a one of a kind viewing. See it for Pattinson and Dafoe’s incredible performances, see it for Eggers masterful directing, see it because nothing else is brave enough to touch upon loneliness, drunkenness, horniness, and ambiguity. Mostly, just see it because it’s a goddamn masterpiece.
I am giving The Lighthouse a 5 out of 5 Hairpieces!