Do you ever feel like you’re just not smart enough to really enjoy a movie you want to watch? Not to say that a movie is bad, but that you can sense you’ll be standing on ice over a deep, dark ocean of mystery and don’t possess the tools to pierce that frozen layer. Such is my experience with Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, his second feature after 2015’s The Witch.
It’s been a year since The Lighthouse came out and when it was first released, I was dying to see it. The Witch had been one of my favorite recent horror films and the concept – a black and white horror film featuring two excellent actors set on a remote island off the coast of Maine (my home state) – seemed tailor made to incite my interest. A haunted lighthouse two-hander that looked like a lost Carl Theodore Dreyer film? Yes please!
Alas it never made it to my neck of the woods, which seemed unfair, given its setting. I awaited the film’s release to home media, but in the interim I read a few reviews – including the absolutely excellent one by our own Mitch Roush. And I could feel my interest starting to wane.
Every single review seemed intent on exploring themes and symbolism and mythology. There were references to Jung and Poseidon and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It started to feel like it was less a movie and more a FILM. Something of IMPORTANCE. Something I HAD to see.
Which is always a recipe for me to start avoiding something.
I think I’ve talked about it in reviews before, but I have a contrarian streak that leads to me resisting calls to view, read, play or enjoy any particular object or act of creation. I don’t know why that is, and generally it leads me to experience these things a long time after the popularity it enjoys has passed. (I think particularly of Pulp Fiction, which I successfully avoided for years and then kicked myself for it.)
I’ve had The Lighthouse in my Amazon Prime queue since it became available, taunting me. Daring me to watch it. That little thumbnail with Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson staring off like Ahab and Ishmael and me thinking “I only made that Moby Dick reference to sound smart. But I’m not smart enough to watch this film.”
But it’s been a year, and the part of me that’s resigned to my level of ignorance of history, film and mythology finally gave me a kick and said “watch it already. Even if you don’t understand it at least it won’t be in your queue anymore.”
So here we are.
The Lighthouse is currently available for subscribers on Amazon Prime and Kanopy. It can also be rented or purchased from a wide variety of streaming services. A Blu-ray is also available, with a commentary track by the director which I’ll probably want to listen to at some point.
Given my introduction you can be forgiven for wondering if I too will make reference to symbolism, literature and mythology – and yeah, I’m totally going to do that. First, though, I’m going to talk about the film as a story on its most basic, surface level.
The Lighthouse on that level is about how two men, Wake (Defoe) and Winslow (Pattinson) are assigned to a remote lighthouse. Over the course of the following weeks the men work, get on each other’s nerves, engage in petty power struggles, fall off the wagon, get stranded by a storm and go mad.
Straightforward enough, right? The film is shot beautifully, with considerably attention paid to claustrophobic framing, lighting and (rarely) camera movement. Pattinson and Defoe give fantastic performances and are both engaging and hilarious. Yeah, the movie is actually pretty funny. That surprised me too.
Any further discussion of the film finds us wading into deeper waters, though. These two characters are men with secrets, and their power struggles (Wake lords his position over the younger man, refusing him access to the light and seemingly punishing him with an endless succession of menial chores) unlock those secrets in interesting and uncomfortable ways. Toxic masculinity, subcurrents of homosexuality, father/son dynamics – all come into play. And if you need to get really overt, there’s the fact that it’s a film about two men in a giant symbolic penis.
If it’s even a film about two men.
Wait. I may have gone too deep too fast, there. Let’s back up a bit. The relationship between the two men is complicated, yes, and there we find elements of generational issues, with Winslow wanting respect and resenting when he doesn’t get it, while Wake revels in authority and experience, and unleashes epic, almost poetic curses when the things he cares about are dismissed. The epitome of this conflict is the way that the older man restricts access to the light, significantly referring to it as ‘she’ and declaring “the light is mine.” To him the light is a reward only given to the deserving and Winslow will never achieve that position.
Winslow (and that’s not his name, but I’ll continue to refer to him as such to keep things clear, for myself at least) struggles with what all young men struggle with. The need and desire to have all the things the world promises, but the continuing frustration at the obstacles and work required to get to those things, especially when those obstacles are presented by men who already have what they want. That’s a recipe for building rage and resentment, and by the time Winslow kills a nagging seagull (obligatory Coleridge reference) he’s already full to the brim with it. It’s only the promise of escape, of leaving the island the domineering ways of Wake that keep him on the straight and narrow.
So when the weather turns and the two men are stranded for an indeterminant length of time the stage is set for violence.
The film beyond these elements is suffused with symbolism (see, I told you), with dreams that include log drives on the ocean, mermaid sex, onanism and naked old men with laser eyes looming over despairing young men. Yes. Laser eyes. Okay, maybe it’s just a reference to the lighthouse, I don’t know.
There are references to Poseidon, but the story I’m most reminded of is that of Prometheus. With humanity locked away from fire (light) by a jealous an petty old, bearded god and the young Titan Prometheus who climbs the heights of Mount Olympus to bring it to mankind. We paid a price for it, of course – Zeus chained Prometheus to the side of a mountain where birds feasted on his liver and sent Pandora to open her famous box filled with horrors (and hope). The ending evokes these stories, but… I’m not sure how they all fit.
In addition, there are elements that suggest multiple interpretations of events. Is Winslow going mad, losing time and mistaking his actions for Wake’s? Is Wake gaslighting the younger man, foisting off his own madness? Are they even separate people, or are we watching a film in which the internal personalities of the same man (note the names when they’re finally revealed) engage in conflict and growing madness until only one aspect survives, if survive it does?
Why am I still asking myself these questions, long after I watched the movie? Why are you still reading me asking myself these questions?
The Bottom Line
“Don’t spill yer beans,” says Wake during The Lighthouse, and it seems to me that Eggers has taken this to heart. It can be frustrating when a film seems to revel in its obtuseness, in being obviously more than it appears, but never clarifying what that more is. Because there’s a part of me that just wants to watch a creepy horror movie about two men trapped in a lighthouse with crazy shit happening as they go mad. Is that too much to ask?
Don’t get me wrong – The Lighthouse is an excellent film, well made with Oscar-worthy performances by its two leads. It’s just that I feel like I only understood half of what the film has to offer, and that bugs me.