Arts and Entertainment

Beware the Lighthouse

Unconventional films call for unconventional reviews. Jacqueline Thom discusses “The Lighthouse,” with spoilers, and delves into the film’s experimental examination of identity and human psychology.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Black and white. Square frame. Grainy film. It sounds like a piece from the early days of cinema where, soundlessly, people of the past move rigidly across the screen. “The Lighthouse” emulates that, though it has its fair share of dramatic dialogue and overwhelming sound. Utilizing archaic techniques summarizes the film’s personality: old-fashioned, chaotic (good), and uneasy. “The Lighthouse” is only director Robert Eggers’ second feature film, but it shows off a mastery of experimental filmmaking that can only be described as intensely cerebral.

The movie immediately dunks viewers into the sea just as main characters Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas (Willem Dafoe) get ready to land on an isolated New England island. They waste no time taking over the shifts of two faceless lighthouse keepers and dumping out the contents of their singular trunk in their quarters. All the while, there’s a piercing, blaring foghorn in the distance—think AT-ATs from “Star Wars” (1977)—that rarely fades out. It’s not long before Winslow starts seeing visions: a mermaid, body parts, and tentacles within the lighthouse’s lantern room.

The first part of the movie goes by fast and with few oddities. Thomas dominates, quickly claiming lighthouse duty for himself, doing the cooking and bookkeeping, and yelling at Winslow to get a move on. Winslow does his tasks slowly, with a consistently forlorn look that overshadows his drooping mustache. He cleans the island’s barren buildings, transports barrows of coal to refuel the light, lugs around barrels of kerosene, and performs whatever extra duties Thomas dumps on him. Nothing is out of the ordinary, except for Winslow’s repeated encounters with a one-eyed seagull and observations of Thomas stripping naked in the lantern room every night. The latter is a clear warning: all is not as it seems, though Winslow never confronts Thomas about his strange behavior, instead begrudgingly carrying on with his work. It’s clear the two men don’t get along, but their required month on duty together passes quickly. It’s only when they’re met with a raging storm that prevents them from leaving do things get outrageously out of hand.

Eerily, the air conditioning in the small theater picked up at the same time as the storm. To distract myself from the cold, I focused even harder on the screen, accidentally making myself more uneasy and claustrophobic as the black borders seemed to close around the increasingly drunk Winslow and Thomas. Whereas Winslow had at first steadfastly refused to drink with Thomas during dinner, their newfound situation as wickies stuck at sea with only liquor for extra rations soon reveals Winslow to be an avid drinker. His layers of mysteriousness and quiet fly off. His desolate look is replaced with artificial brightness and energy from the alcohol. Even his previously carefully trimmed mustache and stubble grows wild. Thomas takes advantage of all this, engaging Winslow in raucous sea shanties and jigs throughout the film that emphasize Thomas’ gritty Somerset and Pattinson’s light Northern Irish/American Midwestern accents.

Thus ensues a film that turns into a surprising tale of identity and masculinity amid the throes of insanity. As evidenced by the grimy turtlenecks and wool coats, we’re in the 19th century. There’s none of the focus on femininity like in Eggers’ “The Witch” (2015). Coincidentally, there was also an overwhelming male presence in the theater to match the onscreen ones. I can only wonder if it made the sensuality of the movie that much more disturbing. From the get-go, Winslow masturbates ceaselessly while holding up a mermaid scrimshaw that he finds in his mattress. Thomas refers to the lighthouse as a quiet wife and gets naked in the lantern room while breathing hard and staring bug-eyed at the light. Later, when the movie finally reveals Winslow’s tainted past from when he was a timberman in Canada, Winslow blacks out while nearly punching Thomas to death. He imagines himself inside the pre-Victorian mermaid (two tails and a vagina) he envisioned earlier. Each time, the sound effects are crisp, too crisp. Winslow’s phlegmy grunts, Thomas’ numerous farts, and the ocean waves truly make it feel like there is no escape. The sound design is almost unanimous with film composer Mark Korven’s collection of sirens and what I can only describe as pseudo-Chewbacca moaning. It is not unlike György Ligeti’s “Requiem,” which accompanies a majority of “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968).

While the film’s eroticness is a major part of it, it’s by no means done just for the sake of having erotica. It’s instead a clever way of discussing identity. When we learn that Winslow’s quiet demeanor is a mask for his troubled state of mind—forlorn gazes are suddenly violent—it’s easy to see Winslow’s lack of identity. He reels against Thomas’ full-blown dedication to wickie life and waves away the old man’s superstition about seagulls. In one scene, Winslow ventures up to the locked lantern room while Thomas is on duty. We can only see Thomas’ bare feet and hear the hint of groans. Something slimy drips through the grates past Winslow. But then the sexual innuendo becomes monstrous when Winslow sees, or rather imagines, Thomas transforming into a giant, barnacled, squid-like creature whose tentacles block out the light of the lantern. Winslow is so caught up in his own world that whenever he encounters something that he can’t bear, his mind translates such scenes into visions that match his sense of discord. After continuously being pestered by a one-eyed seagull, Winslow slings the bird into the rocks with voracity, unheeding of Thomas’ warnings that killing seagulls is bad luck. Later, a scene akin to the axe-wielding one in “The Shining” (1980) takes place. Winslow comes out on top, but quickly succumbs to the consequences of raging isolation.

The film ends with Winslow finally seeing what the lantern looks like. Like a moth, he reaches toward it, just as bug-eyed as Thomas was in the beginning, but unlike Thomas, dies in the process. Cut to Winslow, still alive but barely breathing, intestines strewn across the rocks while seagulls peck at his steaming innards in a Prometheus-esque ending. Like the one-eyed seagull he killed, now Winslow is reduced to the same pulpy state with only a singular eye to see his death coming.

It hints that Winslow really was depraved this whole time. Feeling guilty about the mysterious events of his timberman past, he kills Thomas in a fit of bottled-up rage that is evident throughout the film, and then proceeds to starve to death after his rations run out from being stranded for so long.

I watched “The Lighthouse” with a friend and at the movie’s conclusion, we had vastly different reactions. My friend questioned the reality of the whole thing. It seemed unfathomable that being isolated with someone could induce such murderous reactions. I disagreed. When the only characters are two irritable men, a fictitious mermaid, and an enigma of a lighthouse, accompanied with a lot of alcohol, it becomes clear that there is absolutely no certainty in the film. Even the moments when Winslow and Thomas seem to be getting along well hint at a brewing tension underneath. The climax is when their quarters flood on the storm’s last raging day, another sexual metaphor, and the end of a long one-time connection. If this wasn’t enough, Thomas claimed that his previous lighthouse partner died shortly after losing his sanity. Just like Winslow eventually does.

“The Lighthouse” is confusing as hell, and I wouldn’t blame you if nothing in this review makes sense even with all the spoilers. I highly suggest watching it yourself though, as the experience is eye-opening, cerebral, and psychologically chilling. Surprisingly enough, the film is also enjoying a wide release despite its art house roots, which means it’s probably watchable.