Two men must spend 4 weeks together maintaining a lighthouse on an isolated island in the late 19th century. Sounds pretty straightforward, right? There’ll be some butting of heads as their personalities clash and cabin fever sets in, but eventually they’ll either become friends, lovers, or they’ll kill each other, but however it turns out, the story will be clear and everything will be resolved, yes? After all, the film is called The Lighthouse, and the primary job of a lighthouse is to reveal what would be otherwise hidden and dangerous, so calling a film The Lighthouse when it’s actually a near-impenetrable sack of confusion would be ludicrous!
OK, so I kind of loved The Lighthouse. I also often didn’t like it, but as I discussed with Jessica Manzo-Kyte on a recent episode of Deep Blue Sea – The Podcast dedicated to this surprisingly Deep Blue Sea-adjacent film, it’s not easy to know how you feel about this film. Had I someone seen The Lighthouse fifteen years ago when I started this Sisyphean plight I would’ve undoubtedly hated it and all who’d suggested it be included upon the 1001 List, but I’m trying to look beyond my initial confusion and distaste at films that might not on the surface be exactly what I’m looking for on any given day. I often think I should go back and re-appraise a load of the films I flat out despised first time around, but seeing as I can barely find the time to watch and review films I’ve yet to cross off, I’m certainly not going to prioritise taking another look at the ones that have already passed! So, The Lighthouse. Many people thoroughly approve of this film, meaning I can at least make an effort to see why.
It turns out, and this shouldn’t be a surprise to me, that not everyone enjoys the same kind of film. I know, we’re all different, who knew? Whilst I much prefer films with a strong narrative, satisfying character arcs and, preferably, time travelling dinosaurs voiced by Michaels Shannon or Caine, others seek films that offer more of a mood piece, an opportunity to inhabit a specific mindset for a while, and that is far more the camp that The Lighthouse is illuminating.
Director Robert Eggers abandons us upon this remote, weather-lashed island with two strangers, Robert Pattinson’s newcomer Ephraim Winslow, and Willem Dafoe’s heavily soiled and salted Tom Wake. The two must share their duties, but Wake hogs the prestigious light-based chores for himself, leaving Winslow to empty the chamber pots, whitewash the walls and defend the water supply from malicious seagulls. Time passes, tempers fray, alcohol is quaffed and numerous bodily fluids and odours are expelled in various unpleasant means, but I remained gripped throughout. There’s a definite sense of oddness permeating every scene, culminating in a sequence set within the eponymous lighthouse that led to a repeated carving of “WTF WTF WTF” into my notebook as a somewhat surprising, barely visible turn occurred that left me reeling, and even more so when it went unmentioned by all concerned.
Whether you demand a satisfying narrative or not, The Lighthouse is simply a must watch just for the performances, especially Dafoe. No offence to Pattinson, who does stellar work when he’s not giving his full concentration to nailing his accent to a specific street in Boston, and who has a scream into the wind that’s amongst the highlights of the film, but as far as I’m concerned Dafoe should still be receiving awards for his work here. Thomas Wake feels like an actor’s dream role, just getting to tear chunks from the scenery, vehemently spew monologues almost to camera – sometimes with real dirt being shovelled into his mouth – and reel from anger to ecstasy at a moment’s notice, and all whilst putting on a very enthusiastic nautical accent, and Dafoe makes the most of it all! I loved every minute spent with him. Every line could be a quote, and in fact I may base my entire personality on his from now on. I shall describe things as being “be-grimed and be-dabbled”, and start conversations with “Now’s the time for gab and chatter!”
All I really knew prior to this viewing was the opinion of my former Lambcast co-host Richard of Kirkham A Movie A Day, who despises this film, especially the cinematography, for which it was nominated for an Oscar. I can understand where Richard is coming from, in that several scenes are shot with a far lower quality camera than we are used to these days, but the use of shadow and silhouette, the camera positioning, it all adds up to a quite beautiful film that is most definitely not for everyone, but that had to be the point. Don’t ask me what it’s all about as I haven’t a definitive answer – listen to the Deep Blue Sea episode for some spoilers and theories though. I’ve since also seen Eggers’ follow-up film, The Northman, which I’d also strongly recommend, even if you didn’t like this one, as The Northman has a much stronger narrative (it’s basically Hamlet), and a bunch of incredibly gruesome violence. I watched it on a Sunday morning, whilst doing a batch of ironing, as I’m sure was Eggers’ intent. I’ve yet to see The Witch, Eggers’ first film, but I’m sure I’ll check it out eventually, even if it’s not on the 1001 List. I don’t know for sure why The Lighthouse was added, but I’m glad it was.
Choose Film 8/10
I did finally decide to see the Northman, that one works.