After a fairly disappointing summer of attempted blockbusters, 2019 has certainly been redeemed in its back half. As usual, the fall and early winter become absolutely inundated with weird and wonderful cinema, all attempting to snag as many awards as possible. These are the movies that have been playing at festivals for months are finally able to been seen by the masses. Which, results in frequent weekends where I’m hitting up the indie theaters two or three times, just to pack everything in. Thankfully, it’s rarely a chore, especially when we have movies as great as the one I get to talk about today. A few years ago I discussed director Robert Eggers’ first feature film, the Witch. A dark and moody horror movie that I was maybe a little mixed on when I first saw it, but that has only grown in my estimation as time has gone on, making me incredibly excited to see what Eggers would be up to next. And, when I heard that his follow up project was going to be a weird tale about two lighthouse keepers slowly being driven mad while trapped on an island, featuring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, two terrific actors who aren’t afraid to make big swings with insane performances, I was very excited. And, as time went on and more was made clear about the movie, like it’s weird aspect ration, strange blend of psychological horror and comedy, and A24’s bonkers marketing, I couldn’t help but wonder if the Lighthouse was going to end up as one of my favorite films of the year. And, spoiler alert, it really is.
The story is set in the late 1800’s, and follows two men, Ephraim Winslow and Thomas Wake, as they’re dropped off on an isolated island off the coast of New England where they will spend the next four weeks tending the lighthouse. Wake is an old pro, and Winslow is a newcomer, having to learn the ropes from the cantankerous old man who has apparently driven off several previous partners. And, in a rude awakening, Winslow learns that he has been given all the worst duties on the island, maintaining everything while Wake himself is the only one allowed to actually tend the light. Winslow quickly begins to hate the job, constant mockery from Wake, dealing with a belligerent seagull that seems obsessed with him, and the general back-breaking labor of the island. And, shortly before they are set to leave the island, Winslow finds that a seagull has died in their cistern, meaning he’s in for a huge project. Which is when the seagull that has been pestering him arrives, causing Winslow to lose his cool and kill the gull, despite Wake’s insistence that this causes bad luck.
And, it seems like he was right, because almost immediately the wind shifts drastically, blowing in a massive storm that traps the two men. The ferry that should take them home never arrives, and they realize that they’re going to be trapped on the island for the duration of the storm. The two men are then further confined with each other, growing increasingly drunk and both seemingly going delirious with drink and cabin fever. Winslow has all manner of hallucinations, including finding dead body parts of previous assistants, and even a sexual encounter with a mermaid. And, after one bout of drunkenness, Winslow admits that his name is actually Thomas Howard, and that he watched a man named Ephraim Winslow die, and took his identity. Which coincides with the two men really losing their minds, especially when their cottage is almost destroyed by waves. And, while cleaning up Winslow finds a log that Wake has been keeping which recommends that Winslow be fired without pay for shoddy work. This causes the two men to attack each other, resulting in Winslow beating and burying Wake alive. He then wanders the island alone, going increasingly insane, and finally seeing the light of the lighthouse for himself. But, after witnessing the burning light he ends up going completely mad, and we finally see him dying on the rocks of the island, being eaten alive by gulls.
The Lighthouse is a hard movie to explain. It’s a pretty meandering movie, setting up these two characters and the painful monotony of their jobs, and then just following them as they bounce off each other and gradually wear themselves down. Both Dafoe and Pattinson are really going for it, delivering two wonderfully insane characters that are prone to long, rambling, and beautifully written rants and insults. And they’re funny! I really wasn’t expecting to laugh as much as I did watching this movie, and it’s a genuinely funny experience. Except when it’s not. It’s a rare film that can walk this line, dipping its toe into both comedy and legitimate horror, delivering a movie really unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Which gets compounded when you take into consideration that wonderfully strange presentation. The square aspect ratio and the beautiful cinematography that that instigates heightens the wonderful claustrophobia that Eggers is able to create, really making you feel trapped on this damned rock, and completely understanding why these two men are growing increasingly irritable and insane.
When I left the movie I immediately tweeted out a stupid joke about the movie really capturing the feeling of your freshman year dorm room experience. But, that’s kind of what the movie ends up being. Yeah, there’s lots of stuff going on with Promethean imagery and the idea of mermaids in nautical folklore, but at it’s heart it’s a movie about two strangers being forced into an extremely intimate situation, and basically falling apart. It leads to funny moment, angry moments, and terrifying moments as two men are forced to interact with each other at the most intimate level, realizing that making that situation work is more emotional and physical work than they’re willing to do, and just imploding. It’s a disastrous relationship, a poorly conceived business partnership, and a hellacious working condition all blended together into one nightmarish mixture of anxiety and dread. Because dealing with other people can be a nightmare. Sharing a confined space and having to be recognize of the other person’s wants and needs is hard as hell, and this movie takes all of that anger and frustration to its most insane and terrifying conclusion. It’s a horror movie designed to really rattle introverts, and boy did it work for me. I just hope no one else ended up burying their freshman year roommate alive.
The Lighthouse was written by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers, directed by Robert Eggers, and released by A24, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk