The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse ★★★★★

October movie review #26

There are cinematic forbearers to what happens in The Lighthouse. It's very definitely a followup to The VVitch, another period movie with main characters who very deliberately spoke a kind of Old English that was often hard to keep up with. Tone wise, it fits in nicely with what I've seen described as A24 “artisanal dread” (see also: Enemy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, and First Reformed, just to name a few). The plot bears some superficial resemblance to The Shining, what with its themes of madness bred by isolation, though the visual style more closely resembles Eraserhead by way of the last 10 minutes of The Blair Witch Project.

But, for my money, the strongest influence on The Lighthouse is Samuel Beckett's legendary play, Waiting For Godot. Waiting For Godot is a stripped down, no-frills experience watching two men trapped in an impossible and unknowable situation by fate and bad luck. It's deeply surreal, inexplicably haunting, and honestly kind of upsetting, even though so much of it is frustratingly vague.

That more or less describes The Lighthouse to a T. There's not a whole lot of plot to the thing; it's more to do with sensation. The sensation revolves around two men - their names are not revealed until a fair bit into the film, so I won't put them here - who are sent to a remote island in order to do maintenance on its lighthouse. It's a menial job, full of tiny grievances and irritants, not least of which are the frequent infringements upon them by a one-eyed seagull. Refuel the light, carry the kerosine, deal with the chamber pots; this becomes the monotonous schedule of Robert Pattinson, who soon finds himself increasingly trapped on the island - trapped with a strange older man with a bizarre fixation on the light in the lighthouse - and finds it harder and harder to remember what day it is...

There is a very theatrical flair to the way the story unfolds. It occurs to me that Eggers (who wrote this along with his brother) has crafted something of a stage-ready two-hander. I can easily imagine this being adapted into a top-production theater project, something along the lines of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, or the aforementioned Waiting for Godot.

Robbert Eggers sure has carved a nice little niche out for himself, hasn't he? The New Hampshire-born director burst onto the scene with The VVitch, a brilliantly original film that dared to ask, "What if M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, but good?" Here, he's done another deeply psychological period film; not horror in the traditional sense, but then, when has anything as stupid as genre restrictions ever stopped art?

And I'd argue this is great art. It's been argued often, always by very stupid people, that we're witnessing the end of cinema as we know it, because everything's a remake or a sequel or a blah blah blah. It's nonsense, of course; original films are everywhere, you just need to know where to look. Still, I'd be lying if I said that in a year that just gave us The Lion King remake, this wasn't refreshingly original.

Still, I will warn you that this isn't "traditional" horror. I'll also say that it works wonderfully. The Lighthouse is just shy of two hours, and I can say with all honesty that I never looked at my watch. Not once. With its 35mm film and 1:19:1 aspect ratio, the film gripped me just as much - more, even - than its more "modern" counterparts of the year.

The production is top-notch. Eggers seems to be fitting into another niche here; an almost Kubrick-ian obsession with minute detail. If The VVitch was a movie drenched in New England folktale-isms, The Lighthouse is a film more drenched in...well, seawater. Barnacles and seawater. Mark Korven, Eggers' VVitch collaborator (he also did Cube, and one of the Twilight Zone revivals! ) returns to give a brilliantly bombastic score. You never notice Louise Ford's editing, which means it's perfect.

It's been about half a day since I last saw this movie, and it has not left my head. I keep going through the thing, unspooling it in my head, picking apart all the minute details, disparate events, and multiple conclusions that can potentially be drawn from this film. I LOVE that this is a movie that twenty different people could go see, and come out of with completely different takes on what the thing means, and where it ends up.

The Lighthouse just works. It's a brilliantly made film, one that perfectly straddles the line between arthouse pretension and mainstream entertainment. The atmosphere is tangible, the pacing and slow downward progression into madness is engrossing, and the acting is on a level I've not really yet seen from either of our stars.

That being said, I would've loved it if Dafoe had said: "You know, I'm something of a sailor myself."

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