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“God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart forever; the vulture the very creature he creates.”–Moby Dick
DIRECTED BY: Robert Eggers
PLOT: Ephraim Wilson attempts to escape his troubled past by seeking employ with the Maine Lighthouse Company. His four weeks of labor, under the supervision of the often tyrannical and always erratic Thomas Wake, stretch out indefinitely when the relief crew fails to retrieve them. Trapped on the lonely island, they both find each other to be increasingly vexing company.
- Originally a ghost story (and, to a lesser extent, an adaptation of an unfinished Edgar Allan Poe tale), Robert Eggers and his brother Max, who co-wrote the screenplay, changed tack when Robert read a history of a pair of “wickie” Thomases trapped in a lighthouse off the coast of Wales in 1801.
- The distinct visual texture was achieved through a combination of custom filters and the use of early 20-century lenses. Lighting was also a challenge, with so many lumens required for the exposure that the actors were practically blinded during shoots of some of the close-up scenes.
- The Lighthouse‘s soundscape evolved from field recordings of actual weather and tidal events, later mixed in analog in the studio for a heightened, gritty effect.
- To sexualize what otherwise would have been a prudish Victorian-style mermaid, Eggers and company drew design ideas by studying shark genitalia.
- During production, there was no shortage of seagulls flitting and honking in the background—something appreciated by the filmmakers considerably more during the editing process than during the shoot.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are dozens of water-logged shots and scenes of mental deterioration, but the climax of The Lighthouse‘s frenzied, feverish collapse of sanity occurs in the penultimate scene, when the assistant wickie finally slays his demons and achieves his dream of witnessing, first-hand, the mysteries of the light atop the spiral tower.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Vindictive one-eyed seagull; visions of Neptune
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Eggers made his name with The Witch, exploring madness in an isolated community. With The Lighthouse he elevates the isolation and cranks up the corporeal unpleasantness in a story drained of color, drenched in water, and cramped by pared-down screen edges. The narrative perspective is unreliable, the psychology is toxic, and the obfuscation of water, liquor, sweat, urine, and more saturates both story and image. An ending that demands both a classical education and a willingness to shut up and run with it tops it all off.
Official trailer for The Lighthouse
COMMENTS: The Lighthouse is a considerable achievement in many ways, but its greatest triumph is surprising us with its out-of-the-blue, WTF-iest of endings despite having spent the entire film inexorably leading up to it, dropping every hint and laying so much groundwork that the entire edifice stands ready when the protagonist tumbles down the stairs, the screen goes black then white, and we are presented an image straight out of Guy Maddin‘s Guide to Greek Mythology. The accumulation of details, all individually interspersed in the dialogue and mise-en-scène of an art-house psychological horror, saturates the mental fabric of the attentive viewer. At what point do you finally notice that you are soaked to the bone with brine and sweat? And so it is with Robert Eggers’ sophomore effort. Drip, drip, strain, strain—then *crack*, and you’re doubled over in awe, disgust, and, at times, laughter.
The beginning is obvious enough. The ocean’s waves roll, a tiny-looking ship appears on the blotty-grey horizon, and we meet our companions: Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), all beard, crags, and gristle; and Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson), mustachioed and gaunt, looking like a man condemned. So on to the lighthouse grounds, and into routine, routine, routine. Thomas Howard moves coal, oils machinery, and has runs-in with a fiendishly pesky one-eyed gull sent, it seems, merely to torment the troubled young man. Troubled, yes: he is posing as Ephraim Winslow, but that’s more than something of a lie. Young Thomas’ overseer, old Thomas, is something out of fiction, teetering between amiability and pettiness, confidence and timidity. Young Tom spends most of his efforts not in his exhausting day-to-day labours, but in keeping a lid on his growing fury at Old Tom, at the sea-gull that vexes him, at life… But his temper breaks; not long after, so does he.
There is a lot to unpack here, from the meaning of the Hebraic names, nautical symbolism, father-son dynamics… But first and foremost: mythology. Starting with an apt Promethean metaphor as the setting, Eggers fuels his allegory discreetly. The lighthouse’s flame is quickly established as forbidden, with Old Tom forcibly remarking the first night, “I tend the light!” That light is held under lock and key, and all Young Tom can do is look up through the grating as the keeper gazes into the fractal glow of the Fresnel lens, naked and muttering, “To ye, me beauty” in a suppliant toast. When Young Tom falls to the ground while painting the lighthouse tower, he awakens, nipped at by a seagull, and with his face splattered with what resembles bird excrement. Nearby lies the toppled paint-pot. By the end, after constant denial from Old Tom, and after all manner of trials, Young Tom practically becomes the lighthouse himself: before his final ascent, we see him lighting a cigarette and drinking fuel. Just like the burning lamp he longs to embrace, his face has a flame and his insides burn with oil. This man has become Promethean—and that’s before he even becomes a latter-day Prometheus.
Throughout the jumpy montages of drink-fueled madness, dinner-time chatter, or even just dispassionate observation of Young Tom going about his daily duties, floats a continual, intermittent blast of dark humor. (Not unlike the continual, intermittent blast of the diabolic signal horn.) Pattinson proves he’s capable of physical comedy: in what would be an otherwise unnerving scene of discovery (or madness), he hop-walks to a body washed up on a rocky outcropping. Channeling his inner Charlie Chaplin, Pattinson’s approach and retreat from the body feels the stuff of perfected 1920s zaniness. Dafoe’s performance as Thomas Wake makes Captain Ahab seem balanced in comparison. This renders The Lighthouse all the stranger: is this Greek myth through the lens of a buddy comedy? Or is this a buddy comedy liberally doused in psychological horror? Or is this period horror piece merely a pre-fab to show off some classical education?
Whatever is going on with The Lighthouse, it’s going on sure-handedly. The black and white cinematography provides an historical, almost-documentary feel, as well as tapping into a dreamy-otherness that oscillates between the mistiness of the ocean and the hard-cut clarity of the interiors, and particularly on the faces of Thomas and Thomas. The naturalistic sound of gulls, waves, and that dreadful horn are offset—if only occasionally—by a score and soundscape that bubbles up from a menacing depth. It’s at this point I’m tempted to say that Robert Eggers is far too talented to have both written and directed this. But such visionaries are nothing short of a godsend: a gift of flaming genius that show what the creative mind can achieve. Unlike young Tom, I have no impulse to probe the metaphor further. I’m happy enough that I can catch a glimpse of the beacon.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… a stark, moody, surreal and prolonged descent into seaside madness that will surely not be for everyone… a triumph of mood and vision, like the love child of Andrei Tarkovsky and David Lynch that knows that its actors are just a small piece of the overall composition.”–Lindsey Bahr, The Associated Press (contemporaneous)
The Lighthouse – A24’s web page for The Lighthouse has a few pictures, a few production details, and a brief pitch for the movie
IMDB LINK: The Lighthouse (2019)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
“Q” Interview – CBC’s Tom Power chats with The Lighthouse‘s director
The Mysterious Ending of his Nautical Nightmare – Esquire gets Eggers to discuss the movie’s ending
5 Filmmaking Tips – No Film School reveals some techniques from director and cast of The Lighthouse
Sound Design & The Lighthouse – Damian Volpe, the film’s sound designer, illuminates some of his decisions with Deadline
Lighthouse Lamps Through Time – Thomas Tag expounds at length about coastal illumination
LIST CANDIDATE: THE LIGHTHOUSE – This site’s original List Candidate review of The Lighthouse
HOME VIDEO INFO: The DVD (buy) or Blu-Ray (buy) discs for The Lighthouse may not be loaded with extras, but with this movie, the feature alone makes it worth the modest price. The image is often dark, to be sure, but only by design (and that said, even the tumultuous rolls of water and spray are presented with clarity); the transfer of the physical film is top-notch, with every lighting nuance captured. The sound is crisp or liquid, depending upon the scene: the enunciated and obtuse dialogue contrasting nicely with the murky sonic background of ocean rolls and the blastedly sinister ring of the signal-box’s mechanical horn. (Not to mention the staccato punctures of gulls’ cries. Those are captured perhaps too well.)
Eggers provides a general commentary, deleted scenes do their bit (briefly: just about five-minutes of cuts were included), and the third extra, in the form of the narrative/technical documentary The Lighthouse: A Dark and Stormy Tale provides background information for those who like their fever-dreams dissected more thoroughly than this reviewer. Also available digitally on-demand (buy or rent) (currently free for Amazon Prime subscribers).