WARNING: Slight spoilers ahead.
Seagulls. Mermaids. Farts. Oh, my.
Welcome, dear reader.
The Lighthouse, directed by Robert Eggers, is a black and white nautical thriller starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as a pair of lighthouse keepers sequestered to an island off the coast of New England in the 1890s. As their time wears on, strange happenings begin to root, and the lines between sanity and madness blur into a murky mess.
So, two people, stuck in a cramped space together, with no way out, forced to keep close together for fear of harm or death by the natural elements right outside their front door. That doesn’t sound too familiar, huh? Honestly, who’d have thought this strange tale of seafaring superstition and folklore/mythology remixing would ring so true to now. Sadly, I’m not sure where I’d rather be: here or there.
Eggers, hot off his smashing directorial debut, The Witch (2015), delivers another faux-Shakespearean mind-trip that once again leaves viewers with more questions than answers. The Lighthouse is a searing psychosexual fever dream steeped in a rich, drowning atmosphere, anchored by two sensational performances from Pattinson and Dafoe. The film’s black and white photography, courtesy of cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, immerses you into an ink-toned environment infused with surrealist imagery and an eerie, percussive musical score. The film is an absolute showcase that has every department firing on cylinders. As impressive a filmmaker as Eggers is proving to be, what tickles me the most is his literature literacy. Being a fan of art history, symbolist art and classical writings, Eggers pulls from a deep well of references in crafting his tall tales. From Edgar Allen Poe to H.P. Lovecraft, Eggers thinks like a scholar but can strike up a chord of Hitchcockian tension with the best of them.
In researching the script’s influences, I was delighted by what I found. The original screenplay idea by Max Eggers (Robert’s co-writer and brother) was about a ghost running a lighthouse. That idea was enough to get Eggers’ imagination going, picturing the film’s monochrome look and atmosphere. They then started looking for a story to match the mood. The first attempt was to adapt an unfinished Edgar Allen Poe story, ‘The Light-House,’ but the real juice came from a true story from 1801 involving real-life lighthouse keepers Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith. Known as the Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy, the incident changed the operating procedures of British lighthouses. Stationed at the Smalls Lighthouse twenty miles west of Wales, Howell and Griffith were known for not getting along. So, when Griffith dies in an accident, Howell fears that he’ll be accused of murder. Rather than cast the body out to sea, Howell puts Griffith in a make-shift coffin, strapping it to the rocks outside the keeper’s house. As the season continued, waves battered the coffin against the bluff, dislodging one of the corpse’s arms, the tide’s motion moving it to and fro. The loose limb’s beckoning movements proved too much for Howell’s mind to bear. Upon arriving to relieve him, the replacement team found Howell to be unrecognizable. Following this event, lighthouse teams would be rosters of three.
The Lighthouse maintains the bones of this story in that there are two quarrelsome lighthouse keepers, both named Thomas. And it’s their relationship that makes up the heart of the movie. Dafoe and Pattinson put on a clinic, battling against one another’s wits in a series of show-stopping monologues that toe the line somewhere between slightly unhinged and total insanity. I was honestly concerned for the wellbeing of these actors. Maybe that’s why Pattinson took the Batman part; to decompress.
These characters offer up an example of Eggers’ play with mythology. A mash-up between legends, Dafoe’s Thomas Wake and Pattison’s Thomas Howard represent variations of the sea-god Proteus and fire-stealing titan Prometheus of the Greek mythos. Being the Old Man of the Sea, Proteus was a shapeshifter with dominion over the sea and the creatures therein. An island dweller, Proteus was also prophetic, knowing all things past, present and future, but hated revealing his knowledge. Wake mostly follows along these lines. He’s the older keeper, the wiser of the two. There’s little he parses out to Howard outside of orders and maintains an intense possession over the light. Proteus was of an unpredictable temperament, and Wake is much the same. One minute, he and Howard are chugging spirits, singing sea-shanties and embracing in slow dance. Then, wham! Wake will come in with a sudden slap to the face, cursing Howard for feuding with seagulls:
“Bad luck to kill a seabird!” shouts Wake, his creased, thickly bearded face filling the entirety of the screen in a striking close-up.
Wake’s selfish control over the light is the driving force behind him and Howard’s combative dynamic. Howard, who’s initially introduced as Ephraim Winslow, is a man of delicate pride. He’s a chap after his worth, seeking reward for that which he has yet to accomplish. Howard makes for an incredibly fascinating rendition of the Prometheus. In the ancient lore, Prometheus, a titan and trickster, stole fire from the gods and gifted it to man, granting them power over nature and the natural order. Howard reflects the curious and mischievous spirit of Prometheus but is decidedly a more devious character. His true identity and motives are secret for most of the film, but his obsession with the light is clear from the get-go. Forbidden access by Wake, Howard is overwhelmed with a desperate need to look into the uncanny lamp. Unlike the great titan, however, Howard cares only for his satiation. There is no altruism or humility in his desire—only greed. If you’re familiar with how Prometheus’ story ends, well. Let’s just say certain footsteps are indeed followed.
Ever the meticulous craftsman he is, Eggers also pulled inspiration from several key 19th-century symbolist artists. The works of Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin informed the film’s mermaid, having that character lean more towards its ominous origins than singing sea princess. Some of the film’s visuals pull from the work of German painter/sculptor Sascha Schneider, and likely the most disturbing shot in the movie directly relates to an untitled piece by Jean Delville. The swatch of reference with which Eggers uses to color his canvas lends itself to the unique palette he brings to cinema.
The Lighthouse is a riveting film that plays like an acid trip on the high seas. Teeming with evocative imagery and provocative performances, this is a singular movie whose pallid frames will linger long after the credits roll.
Next blog hint: Not the bees; the other one.
— Chris J. Patiño, Film Blogger.
Chris J. Patiño is a senior at Lewis University, working toward a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism. Inspired at an early age by the late great Roger Ebert, he looks to follow in the footsteps of the acclaimed film critic and add his voice to the choir of movie discourse. As a Tempo reporter, Chris writes film reviews for The Lewis Flyer. He enjoys just about every film genre, but favorites include horror, sci-fi, and action. A lover of books, board games and the great outdoors, he spends most of his free time in worlds of fantasy and thought. Favorite authors include Stephen King and Jim Butcher, with favorite novels being The Dresden Files series, the Harry Potter series, Salem’s Lot, The Shining, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and All the President’s Men.