The Lighthouse is not a quaint little story about the dignity of living an isolated life as a lighthouse keeper. This is a harsh and unrelenting film which brilliantly allows its audience to feel every struggle.
The job of a lighthouse keeper is a lonely, desolate one. That much we already know. The profession has been well-documented over the years on the big screen. Compared with other professions, the lighthouse keeper seems disproportionately obsessed over in film. On distant, remote islands, these keepers of the light face hard work, few comforts, and the type of isolation to make even the most sane man question his whereabouts. What better way to study the nature of man then to place him in the harsh, and symbolic isolation of a lighthouse.
The newest film covering the topic of lighthouse keepers is called simply The Lighthouse. It doesn’t stray too far from the depiction of the profession we’ve seen before, but its methods aren’t traditional. The Lighthouse is a film which doesn’t just tell a story of a lighthouse keeper. Instead, it forces its audience live the experience first hand. It stomps your feet in muddy water. It makes you smell the salt and rot of the sea. It blasts your ears with a deafening fog horn. It blinds you with a brilliant crystal lens.
It is less a film concerned with trying to demonstrate the quiet dignity of the profession, and more concerned with the experience. The story is linear, straight-forward. It starts when the main characters arrive for the start of their duty, and ends at its conclusion. The man in charge, Tom, is a grizzled veteran of the post, a man who has lived a life at sea and his duty as a lighthouse keeper is one he treasures above all else. He has an obsession with the light, an almost sexual attraction, staring into it for hours on end. Against regulations, he doesn’t let his younger counterpart, Winslow, take any shifts with the light. He keeps the upper level of the lighthouse under lock and key at all times.
Without the opportunity to work the part of his job he was most looking forward to, Winslow becomes lonely, and bitter. All of the rest of the hard labor is left to him. Over time, the challenges of this way of life take their toll. When a fierce storm develops, the boat coming to take him away on relief never shows up. He is stuck on an island in the middle of the sea with another man who only wants to see him struggle.
Struggle is the name of the game in this film. Everything is relentless. The camera is interested in showing the character’s faces in close up as they face their daily challenges. The sound of the film is almost overwhelming. From the repeating boom of the foghorn, to the infinitely repeating waves crashing harshly against the rocky shore, to the constant drizzle and downpour pitter-pattering on the roof. The music also swells and recedes like the angry ocean. The film is very orchestral, and I suspect the score would work brilliantly if the film were a silent one.
Indeed, the film is framed like an old-time black and white movie from the dawn of the 20th century. Rather than continuing the trend of going wider and wider with the picture, this film goes narrower. The frame is almost square, once again as a nod to the early times of film. Cast in beautiful black and white, The Lighthouse is a dark film. Light is what seems to guide our characters, and the brightest things in the film are the things they obsess over - the lighthouse itself and the vision of a pale mermaid. The cinematography is quite splendid, but in a sinister, soul-crushing way. This is a film which correlates the difficulty of its characters’ situation with a harsh visual texture.
But sound and vision are not the only senses this film assaults. Despite not actually being able to smell what is happening on screen, the film makes sure to keep reminding you. There’s plenty of flatulence, shots of chamber pots, and characters yelling about how much they smell. The food becomes rotten, the drinking water gets contaminated. And then there is the general dampness of everything. Leaks everywhere, characters stamping around in water, shots of wet clothes. Nothing is comfortable. The film continues to remind us.
Director/writer/producer Robert Eggers is best known for his work as director of the horror film The Witch. Here he brings the same type of horror movie sentimentality. All of the sensory assaults described above keep the audience uncomfortable. The film frightens with its reality rather than the supernatural. The film’s plot furthers this along. Facts and ideas we took for granted early in the film are second-guessed by the end. Eggers makes the audience begin to doubt themselves.
Which brings me to my strongest criticism of this film - the ease at which the audience can disengage. Once a film begins bending the truth back in on itself, the audience needs a reason to continue to care. If we are not sure of what is real and what is not real, we need something to keep us grounded, or else it is all just hogwash. The most thought provoking films in history have been able to maintain some sort of central concept which motivates the audience to find the truth. Sometimes, this can be a character we care for, a truth we need to reveal in order to solve a central question, or way to resolve a complicated plot. The Lighthouse doesn’t have any of that. It is simply a straight line from sanity to insanity.
Part of the problem is that we don’t really care for either of the characters. Both of them seem to have few redeeming qualities. At the beginning of the film, the audience is drawn towards Winslow because of how he is treated by Tom. But by the end of the film, Winslow’s actions make it difficult to have any sympathy for him. But unlikable characters aren’t necessarily bad ones. Both of them are interesting in their own way - Tom, with his seafaring sentimentality and silver tongue, and Winslow with his mystery and desperation. These are men shaped by the fierce winds of fortune, leaving bitter and cold specimens.
And at least the characters are worth watching, even if they are not exactly agreeable. Willem Defoe puts on a hell of a show as Tom. At several points in the film, he (literally) spits out these long, eloquent monologues and the camera is stoically focused on him the entire time. There’s a fierceness in his character, an inability to change as a man who has long been set in his ways. Against this seemingly immovable facade comes Winslow, played by Robert Pattinson. This is the most freewheeling and unhinged we’ve seen Pattinson. His character demonstrates a wide range of emotions, but they are almost always centered around an experience of pain.
All that bottled-up torment finally comes out and Pattinson gives the film a very passionate, emotional conclusion. And although The Lighthouse may end with a “bang” the entire film leading up to that point is equally as harsh and unrelenting. I mean that in the best way possible. Maybe it doesn’t have the most unique premise, and the characters are basically rocks to be beaten endlessly by crashing waves, but it has a mission to make the audience experience something. And it succeeds. We are bruised, deafened, gagging, and broken.
What's Bad: Lacks a central intrigue for the audience to follow, exists mostly to be experienced during the act of watching rather than discussed afterwards.