Stunning ‘The Lighthouse’ Deserves Your Attention

by Simon Williams on October 24, 2019

in Print Reviews,Reviews

Call me divisive.

Yae, I write for ye readers with report of Robert Eggers’ new cinematic pleasure The Lighthouse. On this cold and blustery October morn I must collect my thoughts on this, a most difficult and rocky production, and present them as I see fit. Though it has been many months since I have brought my critical eye toward this site, there comes a time when I feel the great need to knock heads together, and it is then when I know I must return to complaining about movies on the Internet.

Eggers’ work is a most beauteous and awesome oeuvre to return to, his last piece being of course 2015’s The Witch, one of the first pieces I spoke on. That film was a terror that gripped me in my deepest soul, and since peening my 17th-century prose take on the film, it has become perhaps my favorite horror of these past 10 years, and mayhaps among my favorite of the whole decade in any genre. Its chilling, shockingly feminist tale of family trauma in an unknowing and backward moment in history lodged itself deep in my mind, and after a high volume of viewings, I continue to discover new insights and troubles throughout it, and speak on it often with friends and loved ones.

The Lighthouse trailer promised me a deeper, stranger experience, one more harsh and rocky, that I may pick at and explore for just as long a time if not longer. Shot akin to a silent horror of old, in textured monochrome and an aspect ratio of 1.19:1 (indeed near a square), I was reminded of Murnau’s Nosferatu, Dreyer’s Vampyr and the brilliant docu-fiction work of Benjamin Christensen’s Häxan, all among my favorites of that era. To follow, the film continued in The Witch’s period engulfment with an 18th century prose that harkens back to Melville, specifically aping intonations and linguistic quirks directly from the real logbooks of wickies of the time, featuring all the gorgeous vulgarity and half-learned half-gibberish, reference-laden and utterly too wordy speech of the latter portion of late 18th century seamen, as ridiculous and alien it may seem to modern ears. One final excitement came with the casting of Robert Pattinson, an utterly underrated actor as in High Life and Good Time he has shown himself to be a darkly fascinating screen presence reminiscent of classic De Niro or the controlled chaos of Timothy Spall, as well as Willem Dafoe to whom I shall return shortly.

I was, as I do hope is clear, exhilarated at this variety of notions. My remarks have bordered on euphoric in my eagerness to see the film. However, did this work live up to mine expectations?

[Rock Fist Way Up]

Okay I’m going to drop my limp attempt at Melville because I want to be extremely clear: The Lighthouse is my favorite film of the year and a decent candidate for one of my favorites of the decade. If you read my hyperbole on here a lot and take everything I say with a grain of salt, 1) thank you for reading my work it means a lot AND 2) deal with it I’m going down this path again. The Lighthouse is incredible. I don’t even want to talk about it – I just want to make animal noises and sing about it to people in their sleep so it’ll seep into their dreams and force them to see it just to kill the nightmares. I want to watch this thing a million times and form a religion around it. I want to have shots from it tattooed on my body. I want to see Eggers’ follow up The Northman so bad I call feel an aneurysm beginning. I can feel myself getting away from the point again – let’s back up.

The Lighthouse is an Eraserhead-esque surrealist trip into madness as our protagonist is cajoled and tormented by the head lighthousekeeper Willem Dafoe as they are forced to keep a lighthouse running for an indeterminate amount of time during a massive and horrible freak storm. We are treated to a variety of tense moments between the two men as their resources dwindle, their grips on reality loosen and their livers are barraged with an obscene amount of drink. It is dark, and strange, and I love it to bits.

I admit I’m biased as this movie is essentially made for me. I am an enormous history nut and works that spend an obscene amount of time to immerse audiences in history without any care for their ability to follow attract me on a kind of primal level. The Revenant, albeit flawed, still scratches that itch for me and I have continued to return to it long after its flaws have become readily apparent, and The Witch has been perhaps my favorite example of this so far until now. I’m also a film savant with similar tastes extremely similar to Eggers. He has stated in interviews his taste for Kubrick, Tarkovsky, silent classics and the actorly classics of the 50s and 60s. Those familiar with my own scant film work can see the connective tissue.

Upon leaving the theater of my critic’s screening I noted a reserved quiet, with my fellow critical body not quite sure as to how to respond. I, on the other hand, was nearly frothing at the mouth, excitedly waiting to rant about it to whoever would listen. (Apologies to my loving girlfriend for my inability to shut my trap since the screening.)

I am probably making this film sound like a completely alien thing, completely unassailable to general audiences but I think with the right mindset this may be a better crowd-pleaser than many may think. David Lynch is a household name after all, and The Witch made an absolute killing on streaming and Blu-ray. The Lighthouse may be a dense and scary film but it’s not completely untenable. If you’re willing to listen through the dense, jargon-ridden monologues and open your mind to the levels of metaphor at play, you may end up being on the same level of excitement as myself.

To help, though, here’s some things to keep in mind before you watch:
(I will, of course, not recap the whole plot and give highlights because why would I why do you even read me?)

  1. Listen for references. The slightest quote of Melville or reference to mythology can make or break an interpretation, and any visual quote is entirely purposeful. In particular wait for Greek names, recreated shots from silent cinema, and anything that wouldn’t sound out of place in Pirates of the Caribbean. You’ll pick up on some stuff.
  2. Do not underestimate R-Pats here. His performance is less showy than Dafoe’s but his simmering and brooding is every bit as lived in and complex as Dafoe’s more obvious over-the-top play. If you’re not watching him closely you’ll lose out on the subtleties of a truly spectacular performance that really does carry the film, and can help guide you through the film even during the most bizarre of moments.
  3. Take the humor at face value. Much like Kubrick or Ingmar Bergman, the film looks and sounds like it should be this monolithic work of great austerity, but in fact has a wicked sense of humor. If it makes you laugh it’s not a mistake, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a comic moment is just a comic moment.
  4. Lastly, don’t be watch it like an “arthouse film.” Arthouse is a term we use to tell ourselves something is completely strange and unable to be understood. The same thing happened with The Witch in theaters and at the time that film became known as a strange and scary work. A few years later now, it’s under the “horror” tab on Netflix, and it’s rare to find someone who would speak against it. This is a horror comedy, watch it that way, it’s more accessible than you think.

I feel like I’m spending most of this review defending the film, but now I wonder how necessary that is. There are some elements of the film that are just plainly and clearly wondrous and don’t need defending.

First and foremost is the cinematography. Black and white is often described as “stark” but that is not at all the case here. The film is textured and deep, every shot has detail and complexity, and the editing is slow and mannered enough that you get to luxuriate in it and find new details and highlights in every frame. You feel enveloped by the film, enraptured by its spell, living in a place as rich and full as your own. The almost perfectly square aspect ratio helps this, every frame is so artfully put together and every object becomes brilliant vehicles for shadow and the reflection of candlelight. A magical element of the film is the camera movement. Most of the movie is shot locked-down on a tripod, stable and stark, and the few times the camera does move it feels so fluid and clear that it feels genuinely haunted and magical, and is used to incredible affect.

Also brilliant is the sound. The opening minutes of the film are drowned out by this oppressive foghorn that genuinely makes you question your choice to watch the film, just as Robert Pattinson’s character has questioned going onto the island. When will the foghorn end? Is this going to go on for the whole time? What have I gotten myself into? This approach to sound continues throughout the film, with the engines of the lighthouse and the sound of the rain and the most deliciously squishy fart sounds all filling the space, creating this oppressive atmosphere. The score ends up just being eaten by this sound, and the line between the diegetic and non becomes so blurred as to be irrelevant. Incredible.

The literary nature of the film is a true selling point that may not be one for everyone but I would put money on the idea that it is for people who enjoy my writing. I keep referencing Melville but I feel like I need to elaborate my meaning there as people’s image of Melville is very different than the work he actually created. We have an idea of his work, and Moby Dick especially, to be a string of these epic adventure stories about capital-M Men who live out in the wilderness, but in reality his work was always very literary and rather bizarre. His sense of humor was sharp, and he often would go for passages in Greek or Hebrew, fully accepting much of his audience would never be able to translate it. He honestly reminds me much more of Chuck Palahniuk than James Fennimore Cooper, complete with political satire riddling the thing and his active skepticism of masculine bluffing. Moby Dick is good, who would’ve guessed?

The Lighthouse adapts this side of Melville perfectly. The language is scrumptious and alien for the very sake of the beauty of language, the supernatural elements are purposefully and actively obtuse and the political subtext is very deliberately askew. It feels like a tall tale, at turns poetic, vulgar, alien, epic and intimate, all without upsetting its other elements.

I also would be remiss for writing this piece without the most obvious point of praise for general audiences. Willem Dafoe is spectacular. I’ve been meaning to write a longer piece about this for some time but I honestly believe Dafoe is a decent candidate for the greatest screen actor of all time, and here Dafoe gets his most freeing, surreal role to ring to the heavens of his career. Tom Wick speaks in gorgeous, maddening soliloquies that he sings like Shakespeare. He gets to be cruel, funny, personable and get moments of heavenly terror, and embodies every aspect of the character without ever letting the role disappear into sounding, to quote Pattinson’s character, “like a parody.” He doesn’t get the subtlety of Bobby in The Florida Project or the grace of his Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ but it doesn’t matter. It’s a scenery chewing role that he sells like nothing else.

I should stop ranting.

Please go see The Lighthouse. This is a deeply personal, wildly entertaining and utterly singular vision that needs more eyes staring at it. Be a part of the wave of buzz around this thing before it becomes just another underrated movie on Netflix. It is startling and gorgeous and the big screen experience of this film engulfs you like the sea. Most forwardly, GIVE ROBERT EGGERS YOUR MONEY. He is one of the most exciting voices in contemporary cinema and I, specifically, want more films by him. The film is a stunning, thoughtful and immensely watchable festival of his most wondrous urges and I want more. It’s beautifully shot, incredibly acted, and is so overburdened by ideas and themes that we can be talking about this thing for ages.

It’s so good I didn’t even have to mention the mermaid, the evil seagull, or the multiple scenes of Robert Pattinson masturbating.

Simon Williams

Simon Williams is a media critic and filmmaker originally from Columbus Ohio. He makes short films about sad people who don’t speak their minds because he himself is a sad person who does not have that issue.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 KB Burke October 25, 2019 at 12:34 am

SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY, EGGERS! Can’t wait to see The Northman in 2022.

Great review. Worth the wait. I hope you get the opportunity to write more. Your passion shows in your prose.

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