The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse ★★★★


The descent into madness plot is nothing new, but “The Lighthouse” is a fantastically designed variation. It’s not surprising that this began as a reworking of an Allen Edgar Poe story; one of the earliest films to feature a character having a psychotic break from reality that comes to my mind is D.W. Griffith’s “The Avenging Conscience; or Thou Shalt Not Kill” (1914), which is based on Poe writings. Nor are comparisons made here surprising to the works of Robert Louis Stevenson, who besides penning nautical adventures, authored “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” a famous instance of the sort of doubling theme hinted at in “The Lighthouse” with the two Thomases, the one wanting the other’s job and that other paranoid of him stealing it, as well as of a drug-induced lunacy from the novella that aligns with the inebriated states of the lighthouse keepers. Madness became a predominant theme in the Expressionist and art films of Weimar Germany, too, but “The Lighthouse” reminds me more of the Scandinavian cinema that began to emerge in the 1910s--namely, in the oeuvres of Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller--that intrinsically connected characters’ fates and mentality to the harshness of nature. Likewise, the characters of “The Lighthouse” become victims of their environment, which is felicitously reflected in the contours, shades and art of the picture.

The square, 1.19:1 aspect ratio and the black-and-white photography are apt for both the lighthouse setting and its confinement surrounded by the stormy seas and even prayed upon from above by the seabirds. Today’s usual widescreen presentation wouldn’t have the same claustrophobic effect. Shooting on orthochromatic, black-and-white 35mm film, with its low sensitivity, too, surely helps control the light given off by the lighthouse, kerosene lamps and stars, while maintaining the dark voids that escape their illumination. Indeed, “The Lighthouse” has received much praise for its cinematography (including its only Oscar nomination), as well as some for its production design. Perhaps, not receiving due credit, however, is the soundscape. Mostly relying upon the diegetic sounds of the location contributes to the sense that the fog horns, crashing waves, birds squawking and engine noise are driving the protagonist mad, as much so as his supervisor’s belligerence, chatter and farting. Although this two-hander calls for showy acting and the characters are considerably clichés--both characters even say as much about the other at one point or another--Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe do well, aided by a camera, as well as the scenario, practically exclusively focused on them, to keep the spectator’s engagement.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t comment on the psycho-sexual dynamic in the horror of “The Lighthouse,” as well. As its maker Robert Eagers puts it, “Nothing good happens when two men are trapped in a giant phallus.” The phallic nature of the lighthouse is reinforced by Dafoe’s character’s guarded control of it, including for seemingly sexual gratification. Pattinson’s protagonist, then, desires entry to this domain not only for reasons of professional advancement, but also for sexual engagement. Instead, his madness is partly driven by sexual dissatisfaction and displacement, from the mermaid engraving to the delusions of an actual fish-woman and his conflation of her with his supervisor played by Dafoe and with birds, to the lighthouse-inspired phallocentric struggle over submission and dominance between the two men. “The Lighthouse” is quite a perverse twist on the familiar fallacy of madness, although it’s not the first time in film history a lighthouse has symbolized sex and, specifically, a penis--for one, an insert shot of a lighthouse proved an amusing workaround the Hays Code in “Casablanca” (1942/43).

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