What are we to make of a movie like The Lighthouse? The longer you gaze into its depths, the murkier it appears. If it’s sense you want, look elsewhere. This is early period David Lynch territory, a smoky, rusty machine powering a beacon that says, “Stay away for safety!” while drawing Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas (Willem Dafoe) ever closer.
It’s rare for a film to wear its influences on its sleeve and still be wholly unique, unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory. Robert Eggers clearly has a deep understanding of the silent and early film era. His black and white cinematography is reminiscent of Fritz Lang, and his practical effects – one very tantalizing underwater shot in particular – are entirely convincing, owing a special debt to Méliès. He perfects lonely isolation on an island somewhat curiously, barely showing us the ocean at all. With the weird aspect ratio, we just see a house and craggy cliffs. He wants us to notice how tall everything is, like the silent sentinal pines in The Witch. It looks like we’re spying on Dafoe and Pattinson through a ship’s porthole, or like they live in a bottle.
Kubrick’s work in The Shining is perhaps the best psychological study of boredom and isolation on film, and I think Eggers gets closer than anyone ever has to besting him. Yet we never get wide frames or long tracking shots to get any attention to meticulous detail like Kubrick might have done. Instead, Eggers suffocates us with close-ups and upward angles. For such a small, claustrophobic picture, the tiny buildings of the island feel like an inscrutable maze.
The artist whose shadow looms largest over this desolate folk tale is Ingmar Bergman. Not only did Bergman make several films set on lonely islands (Persona, Hour of the Wolf), but he himself lived on Fårö, a lonely genius studying boredom and isolation in cold privacy, exploring man’s inmost terrors with exquisite visual manifestation.
The plot (if there even is one) is a messy knot of rope and tentacle. Occasionally, the spell breaks. The writing is far from perfect, calling attention to itself instead of trusting us to revel in the Melville-ian glory with no hand-holding. Pattinson can’t really decide on an accent and, unlike Dafoe, his character is far less interesting whenever he opens his mouth. His roiling stoicism is most powerful when he’s carting coal around the island, masturbating furiously, or getting buckets of shit blown back into his face by an unforgiving (supernatural?) wind. It’s very successful as a black comedy, doubly so as an anxious, Lynchian nightmare.
There are other obvious similarities to Eggers’ first picture The Witch. Both feature nefarious birds that enjoy human flesh. The divine is very real, but in this one there’s no women to get empowered by accessing the spiritual; just more male arrogance masquerading as righteous order. Other commonalities would be spoilers!
Dafoe is the predictable MVP. He’s consistently believable while delivering completely unbelievable dialogue. He farts and jerks off and pontificates and drinks and curses. He fancies himself captain, and the lighthouse his ship. He’ll keep his second in line at any cost.
So what’s actually happening? What does it all mean? How does the Prometheus myth figure into all of this? Is there some significance in which style of whacking off each man chooses?
Not only are we short on answers, we have no idea what questions to ask. Like Bergman, Eggers shows us outward manifestations of Pattinson’s inner fears and desires, but we’re no closer to understanding him. Light from the forbidden lighthouse beckons, but darkness looms larger. Blood and shit and clear liquor flow into the sea, but the sea is not filled.