What is worse for the human psyche? To be alone, stuck with your own thoughts and no-one to connect to? Or to be trapped with another person, unable to get away no matter how toxic things turn? With a late 19th Century setting and dealing with themes of both physical and mental isolation, The Lighthouse (from The Witch director, Robert Eggers) is a heavily stylistic tale of two men stuck together and the destructive behaviours that swamp them both.
Billed as a ‘psychological horror-thriller’ The Lighthouse is a salt-splattered shanty where young new recruit Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is paired up with old hand Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) at an isolated lighthouse off the coast of New England, USA.
The quiet and reserved Winslow struggles with being given all the hard labour jobs but consoles himself that the placement is only for 4 weeks. However, as the weather takes a turn for the worse the relief boat is unable to dock leaving Winslow and Wake stuck together, as food supplies run low.
It is immediately apparent that The Lighthouse is a movie awash with symbolism. Wake’s dire warnings against violence to sea birds (“they are the souls of sailors!”) pairs with a one-eyed seagull that appears determined to torment Winslow: a man clearly hiding his past and reasons for choosing such a secluded short term job.
Wake forbids Winslow from entering the lantern room, but when Winslow spies on him inside that room he can’t explain the writhing shadows or gloopy substances that drip from above. And are there mermaids surrounding the island, or is Winslow losing his mind?
The black and white cinematography presented in a nearly square format ratio limits what you can see in any scene. Dafoe and Pattinson are the only characters in the movie and most shots between them are in close up. For them, just as for you as the viewer, there is no escape. The movie is expertly underpinned by a disturbing score from Mark Korven (The Witch, In The Tall Grass), laden with nautical instrumentation and sanity shaving dissonance. Everything about The Lighthouse is designed to crush you into a constrictive mentality, fighting against your bonds.
As the only two people on screen, Dafoe and Pattinson really let loose and give enthrallingly intense performances. Dafoe can swing from contrite to violently angry and back again in a heartbeat, whereas Pattinson excels in portraying a man unraveling into mania. Their tempestuous relationship is only exacerbated by an excess of alcohol filling the gap left by an absence of food.
Like roommates doomed to mutter in passive-aggressive spite, there is intrigue in how these characters deal with the pressure of enforced co-existence. “What do you mean you don’t like my lobster?” pleads Dafoe, genuinely stung by criticism of his cooking before launching into an eloquent yet demented tirade. They veer from being at each other’s throats to embracing each other with genuine affection that pulses through a subtext of homoeroticism via moments of a father/son relationship. If they constantly hated each other all the time the movie would be too much to bear. That their relationship grows and then disintegrates makes it all the more compelling.
Whilst clearly not to everyone’s taste (Pattinson using a small wooden mermaid figure to try and desperately relieve stress in that most masculine of ways is not something quickly forgotten), I found The Lighthouse to be an astonishingly good piece of filmmaking. Even though there was clearly a deeper level of intellectualism going on that I was not going to grasp on the first watch (and yes I will be watching it again), I remained gripped throughout.
It’s a joy to watch two hugely talented actors be let off the leash and go all out, surrounded with such a visually and aurally rich platform to work within that you leave your seat physically stunned from the experience. Just, whatever you do, do not look directly into the light…
Words by Mike Record