The Lighthouse (2019)
Director: Robert Eggers (The Witch)
Starring: Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson
Reviews: 92% on RT, 4.2/5 on Letterboxd, 8.3/10 on IMDB
How long have we been on this rock?
This sodden and often percussive sophomore outing from director/writer Robert Eggers contains so much of a constant struggle to survive that the fact neither main character can really recall what day, or even month, they’re in is the least of their worries. Set on a remote island beneath a lighthouse whose horn booms through the atmosphere of the film, we experience a power struggle between two “wickies,” lonely men tasked with a months-long assignment in solitude to ensure the lighthouse’s continued shine.
On one hand, we have Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake, a former sailor who spews garbled soliloquies about the sea and varying accounts of how he hurt his bum leg as he downs large glasses of mysterious, dark alcohol. Dafoe both embraces the kind of manic villainy we’ve seen from him in films like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Spider-Man, or even as Van Gogh in last year’s At Eternity’s Gate, and the fatherly elder-statesman vibe he’s given us in films like The Florida Project or John Wick to turn in a performance that is as comically gruff as it is intimidating. Wake has tended the lighthouse for years before we meet him at the start of this film.
On the other hand, we meet Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow, a former timberman who is new to being a lighthouse keeper. He keeps to himself and alludes to a complicated past as a drifter, looking for a job he can keep long term. For people who have remained apprised of the film scene over the past few years, it should be of no shock that Pattinson has remained so relevant even after ‘Twilight,’ primarily because he has turned in a handful of excellent indie film performances in films like High Life, Good Time, Maps to the Stars, and The Lost City of Z. This is probably his best work yet.
As is the case with a lot of the releases that distribution company A24 puts out, this movie quickly developed into a cult hit, and it did hit a lot of the experimental boxes that make A24 such a modern staple of the movie industry. After premiering at Cannes and opening in limited release across the U.S. the past few weeks, it has been a modest box office success and should only gain traction as more people get to see it on streaming.
Stylistically, Eggers opted to have the film shot in 35mm black-and-white film and also picked an older-style aspect ratio of 1.19:1, giving the film even more of a bleak, claustrophobic style because of how square the screen looks. The overlaying score equally builds dread and uses the constant siren of the lighthouse to put the audience in a near-frenzied state, where we can never relax because of the ambient noise level. The production on this is a real attribute.
The story starts with Wake and Winslow arriving to the island, a rocky area where a routine is soon established. Winslow is tasked with the physically laborious jobs such as hauling large containers of oil around, doing manual labor by fixing up the pair’s small cottage by the sea, and basically being required to respond to any setbacks the pair experience. A good example of this is that Winslow is the one to replace the roofing shingles after a heavy rain or clean the cistern when the water comes out bloody.
Meanwhile, Wake seemingly does very little during the day, as he is the one who merely supervises the lighthouse at night and ensures it continues to operate. Wake also does the pair’s cooking, and you better not speak badly about his lobster.
After some time, Winslow begins bristling under what he perceives as an inequitable distribution of labor. He gets all of the menial work while Wake is the actual “wickie.” That is, Wake is the one who gets the ability to manage the lighthouse during the night and does not allow anyone else to access the lighthouse. Further, it should be noted that Wake also keeps a captain’s log with daily entries describing the work being accomplished on the island. He locks the log up in a padlock-sealed cabinet each night.
As the two spend more time together, they simultaneously grow closer and begin developing an increasingly hostile rapport. They have repeated arguments about Winslow’s work habits, but yet drink tons of alcohol and homoerotically dance with each other in a stupor each night. For Winslow especially, he begins feeling very isolated and lonely in his days and is only able to handle the bristly Wake after he begins drinking at night. Notably, Winslow did not drink at all when first arriving at the lighthouse, but after he begins feeling increasingly sour, he decides to start accepting the constant liquor offerings from Wake.
The movie really starts getting closer to the described horror genre when Winslow begins experiencing pretty lurid hallucinations. They come in a few different forms.
First, his loneliness manifests itself in a mermaid, styled after a small scrimshaw figurine he finds in his cot on the first night at the island. In addition to pleasuring himself while gazing at the figurine, he also starts having visions of swimming out toward a mermaid figure or seeing the mermaid lying on the beach.
Second, he carries with him some kind of guilt for his past actions as a timberman. Although he later tells Wake the truth in a scene where Wake scolds him for “spilling his beans,” he frequently envisions himself in deep water surrounded by chopped logs floating in the ocean. His demeanor at the start of the film is very solemn, and he offers very little personal detail in response to the prying questions from Wake. When he eventually offers the truth to Wake, that he was somehow responsible for the death of a co-worker and then took that person’s name, his inner violence and savagery become more pronounced.
Finally, the visions Winslow has also bring the tidings of bad omens. The mermaid itself is largely seen as a negative figure in British folklore, but Winslow also has repeated run-ins with a one-eyed seagull, which practically terrorizes Winslow by getting in his way multiple times in the film. Rather than react hotly, Wake advises Winslow not to spar with a seagull, as killing one will bring bad luck. Wake believes that the souls of dead sailors live in the seagulls.
Winslow also becomes increasingly convinced of Wake’s internal evil. When attempting to spy on Wake in the middle of the night while up at the lighthouse, he frequently sees Wake naked, almost bathing in the light, while also occasionally imagining Wake with large tentacles jutting out of his body. Winslow attempts to learn more about the wickie he replaced, but Wake holds firm to the tale that he went mad and had to be replaced. Consequently, Winslow begins imagining seeing a one-eyed corpse in a shellfish trap. Could it be that the second wickie has been reincarnated as the one-eyed gull, intent on stopping Winslow from driving himself further and further mad on the island? It’s possible, although there is also an alternate interpretation of the gull as well that we’ll get to.
Under increased agitation, Winslow does eventually kill the one-eyed seagull, prompting an immediate change in the wind patterns that leaves the two men stranded beyond their initial term. They begin running short on rations, as the crates are only filled with more alcohol, and Winslow begins being unable to recall what day it is. He believed that the rescue ship should come, but it never does, and whether his perceived lack of temporal awareness is because of his decreasing faculties or because of Wake’s subtle manipulation of him, we’ll never know.
Now completely stranded and caught in turbulent weather, the pair become completely undone. They begin making some sort of drink out of kerosene and Winslow becomes more and more hallucinatory, even imagining himself becoming intimate with the mermaid. When he tries to leave on a life raft, Wake prevents him, clearly revealing a bit of a savage co-dependency. They wake up hungover with their cottage completely destroyed by a storm. It is at this point Winslow finds his poor performance review from Wake and loses it, beating Wake repeatedly while imagining him as both a sea monster with the tentacles and as the mermaid. He eventually tries to bury him alive, but Wake reengages him in a physical confrontation, resulting in Winslow killing Wake with an axe.
Now alone, Winslow climbs the stairs of the lighthouse to finally gaze into the light from within. Yet, he screams, it burns him, and he falls to his death. A scene sometime later shows Winslow, with one eye missing, having his innards eaten by seagulls.
The symbolism of loneliness and guilt are easy enough to understand, but the end of the movie is often a talking point for people who watch. What starts as a two-hander with two interesting, yet fairly ghastly, men alone on an island becomes a symbiotic violent mess with nasty, inhuman visions. It’s here that I’ll posit that perhaps the gull was actually Winslow, trying to warn himself. Either way, whether it is Winslow or the second wickie with one-eye reincarnated as the seagull, the seagull was meant as an obstruction. It just so happens Winslow ignored the sign and killed it anyway, prompting the change in weather to the pair’s detriment.
This story is partially based on real life events where lighthouse keepers disappeared without a trace. The setup is similar to the one in 1801 in England, where two men named Thomas disappeared (Thomas is Winslow’s real name before he stole his victim’s identity), but it also could be pointing to the Flannery Island disappearances in 1900, coincidentally the subject of a small film that came out earlier this year called The Vanishing. The isolation and clear antagonism of the characters is such a great plot to carry out on this small island amid bad weather. After The VVitch, many accused Eggers of being style of over substance, but more discerning viewers may draw out plenty of substance from behind this slightly inaccessible mask.
The story’s through-line is a struggle of power between the old and the new. Dafoe’s Wake has been the keeper of the light for years and has had multiple wickies reporting under him. Meanwhile, it’s Pattinson’s Winslow who desires a real job and wants the opportunity to grow in this role. It’s why he struggles against Dafoe’s forbiddance to reach the top of the lighthouse. This is a common theme that we see a lot in film, where characters become corrupted by power, or they become enraged by the mistreatment from someone with power, lording it over them.
This is so much so that this story points very succinctly to the Greek tragedy of Prometheus. Prometheus is the classic story of becoming overly ambitious, only to be given disastrous consequences when he stole fire from the Greek gods. As punishment for his theft, the gods demanded Prometheus be tied to a rock, where each day a bird would fly down and begin eating his organs (his liver, specifically), only for it to grow back and be subject to the punishment again. Like with Winslow, he finds himself unable to handle the truth in the light, falls to his death, and is eaten by birds while his body remains on the rock of an island where the lighthouse is located. Prometheus was merely a titan and did not share the same type of power the gods did.
Instead, Wake reminds one of Proteus, the Greek god of the sea, who can shapeshift and tell the future. Wake not only speaks in odd, prophetic language, but he actually forewarns Winslow of the nasty fate he will eventually have in an epic rant when Winslow upsets him. Whether Winslow really saw Wake actually morph into a tentacle creature and cover it up later with a human form is immaterial, it’s the fact that Proteus here represents the person who obstructs Prometheus from attaining the greater knowledge. Instead of fire, however, we have the light, which represents some eternal energy coveted by Winslow and held by Wake. Winslow’s aspirations get the best of him, and he is forever punished as a result.
Eggers seems fascinated by this idea of his characters committing evil only to end up as part of some supernatural sacrifice at the conclusion of his story. This ending is similar to how he ended The VVitch, with one lone character turning themselves over to the horror unmasked from within.
All in all, I found this movie to be incredibly fascinating and wonderfully ambitious. Dafoe is actually hilarious as this gruff, blue collar, former-sailor who speaks in prophecy and rhythmic pentameter, while Pattinson commits to, frankly, a man completely losing his mind over the course of a two-hour movie. The central performances are powerhouses, coupled with a dreary atmosphere and constant dread that Eggers mines for random comic relief but also to flash horrifying imagery on the screen. This is not a “horror” movie in that it’s not particularly scary. However, I’d argue it’s more of a psychological thriller that has some black comedy and shock horror intertwined. But Eggers need not be constrained by genre. This is a fabulous release that will only bolster the wide canon of A24 releases that rival the very best, most “prestigious” films of the year.