Saturday, December 05, 2020

"The Lighthouse": review

[NB: spoilers.]

2019's "The Lighthouse" stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in a horror-comedy-drama (I should call this subgenre a horcomama) about two men who spend weeks in each other's company as lighthouse keepers (the one who specifically tends the light is apparently called a "wickie").  Directed by Robert Eggers and co-written by Robert and his brother Max Eggers, "The Lighthouse" takes place sometime in the late 1800s, possibly somewhere along the coast of Maine.  Dafoe's character, whose name—Tom Wake—we learn very late in the story, is a farty old salt with tales aplenty about the sea, about his wife and family, and many other things besides.  Pattinson's Ephraim Winslow is, at least initially, Tom Wake's opposite:  he's laconic where Wake is garrulous, and quiet where Wake is boisterous.  The men—well, Winslow at least—are posted to the lighthouse for four weeks, but the stormy, rocky, dangerous coast makes landfall impossible for arriving ships, so the time drags, and both men slowly go mad.  That's "The Lighthouse" in a nutshell:  the story of two men going nuts.

The story is told mostly from Ephraim's point of view, although we do get one moment alone with Tom, early in the story, when he's sitting atop the lighthouse, basking in the lamp's fiery glow and toasting some unknown, unnamed love (the sea?  a woman?  something else?).  Aside from that one moment, whenever there's an auditory or visual hallucination, it's Ephraim's, and quite often, what Ephraim hallucinates is Tom Wake changing form like Proteus, the shape-shifting Greek god who serves Poseidon.*  Another heavily sexual hallucination involves a lovely mermaid, and when Ephraim finds a tiny scrimshaw carving of a mermaid, it becomes for him the object of a masturbatory fetish.  As the movie progresses, the two men often spy on each other, each often quietly observing the other in the midst of an unsavory autoerotic situation (one scene, played for laughs, even gives us a queasy view of semen dripping down through cracks in the floor overhead).  Tom Wake proves to be a merciless, unreasonable taskmaster; Ephraim starts off as quietly tolerant of the abuse he receives from Tom, but as the two men get to know each other better, Ephraim becomes increasingly resentful and even openly rebellious.  What may have begun as a weird father-son dynamic turns into something more like a myth-and-magic-tinged power struggle, with the lighthouse itself as the object of contention:  Ephraim wants to tend the light—the rules say the men are supposed to take alternating shifts—but Tom refuses to let him near it.  Already sliding into insanity, Ephraim is driven even crazier by his need to know what it is that inspires Tom to strip naked and bathe in the lighthouse's sacred beam, night after night.

The movie weaves together a jumble of heady themes and concepts:  masculinity, homoeroticism, mythology (especially of the Greek variety), and what it's like to live in a remote, austere environment with an increasingly crazy frenemy for company.  Insanity is the underlying, unifying theme of "The Lighthouse," and it's portrayed particularly well by director Eggers, whose brother Max had initially started off with an incomplete story by Edgar Allan Poe titled "The Light-House."  But as Max and Robert worked on their story, they ended up with a scenario that had nothing to do with Poe's original.  To be frank, we might all be better for it:   "The Lighthouse" is one hell of a head trip.  Because both characters, Tom and Ephraim (whose real name isn't Ephraim, we eventually discover), are going mad, and because they're the only two people on the island—not counting the gulls, which are characters unto themselves—we viewers are left with no reliable narrators, and by the end of the story, with one character dead and the other dying, we have no idea whether anything we've seen is real.  "The Lighthouse" leaves us with no answers and nothing but questions.

Whether you're fine with that is a matter of taste.  As I get older, I find myself increasingly comfortable with ambiguity, so "The Lighthouse" suits me nicely, especially since "Joker," another tale featuring an unreliable narrator of sorts, prepped me for this sort of thing.  At the end of the day, if the story is engaging, I don't require that it make sense.  So what if everyone comes away from the story with a different interpretation?  That's life; the universe is often ambiguous, so why should stories be any different?

The way to get through a movie like "The Lighthouse" is to let go and simply enjoy the ride.  How enjoyable the ride is, of course, depends on the strength of your stomach.  Much of the movie's abundant humor is dark, twisted, and macabre, and by the end, neither character is really worthy of affection or sympathy.  I was reminded of other one-on-one scenarios, such as the one involving Lee Marvin in 1968's "Hell in the Pacific," or the concluding scene of "There Will Be Blood," in which Paul Dano faces off against Daniel Day Lewis.  There's even a moment in "The Lighthouse" that looks an awful lot like a tribute to "The Shining":  Tom Wake, who has a pronounced limp, chases gimpily after Ephraim while holding an axe.

The movie's sound and visuals also deserve special mention.  I watched the movie on my laptop while wearing my earphones, and that allowed me to soak in the beauty of the film's sound design.  The sound does so much to create and maintain the movie's atmosphere:  the crashing waves, the relentlessly blatting foghorn, the creaking wood of the property's interior, the infernal screeching of the gulls (Tom contends these are the souls of perished sailors, which is why you should never kill one... so guess what Ephraim does), the pounding and rattling and whipping rain, and of course, Tom Wake's frequent farts.  The movie's cinematography uses lighting to highlight the rocky landscape as well as the broken-down, spartan interior of the creaky residence where both men live, and the nearly 1:1 aspect ratio of the movie—which was filmed in black and white—concentrates the viewer's attention and leaves no room for frivolous artistic curlicues.  The aspect ratio itself provides a sense of claustrophobia as both men lose their marbles and become increasingly unbearable and dangerous to each other.

And I have to give credit to both writers for their ear for language.  Dafoe and Pattinson are given some amazingly pungent, amazingly evocative, almost Shakespearean lines to say to each other, with Dafoe arguably receiving the lion's share of the wit being expressed.  The language sounds plausibly as if it came from the late 19th century, and Dafoe chews the scenery while affecting a pirate-style accent that's trapped somewhere between Cork and Glasgow, with "five times" sounding like "foyve toymes."  Pattinson's accent proves harder to pin down; it seems to be all over the place, but we find out that his character, Ephraim, has spent a great deal of time up in Canada, and has worked in many other places, perhaps explaining why Ephraim's accent sounds so muddled.

As other reviewers have noted, you'll come away from "The Lighthouse" not having a damn clue what the hell it was you just watched, but you'll have a rollicking good time while you're watching.  The movie is a deep dive into mythology, masculinity, mystery, and madness.  It often feels like a stage play, and both Dafoe and Pattinson act their hearts out.  While the movie is a fog of ambiguity, I think the fact that the movie's focus is more on Ephraim than on Tom is a hint about... something.  I'm not sure what, but... something.

*The adjective protean (changing in form; variable or versatile) comes from Proteus, but I don't see what makes Proteus so special:  plenty of Greek gods could assume different shapes and guises.  Zeus, for example, did this all the time.

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