The Lighthouse review: Two men and a tentacle (to say nothing of the seagulls)

February 4, 2020

The sea has long been a place for the best horror stories; what could be more terrifying than the depths of the ocean? The void, the emptiness, the possibility of drowning, not to mention all those inexplicable creatures that lurk within its depths. Edgar Allan Poe wrote an unfinished story called The Light-House, and who could forget all those classic Peter Benchley novels, The Deep and Jaws?

The Lighthouse, the new film by Robert Eggers, plumbs these depths with some distinct Lovecraftian vibes.

Two men, one an old, experienced lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe), the other a young man with a dark past (Robert Pattinson), are stranded at a remote lighthouse. As a storm front gets worse, the relationship between the two men escalates into hatred. And perhaps more sinister forces are at work this close to the sea…  

The film is beautifully shot in black and white, not just as an afterthought, and rightfully has received a best cinematography nomination for Jarin Blaschke. But as a viewer, the 1.19:1 aspect ratio distracted me from engaging with this film. I’m just gonna say it, widescreen is nice folks. I get the choice that the aspect ratio implies the claustrophobia of the characters, but some sweeping vistas of the island would have been a great addition to the mood of the story.

Willem Dafoe revels in his role as Thomas Wake, stealing the show as a poetry quoting sea dog. It was great to see the breadth of Robert Pattinson’s acting range, reminiscent of Daniel Day Lewis in places. The Lighthouse may have been better as a stage play; it’s reminiscent of True West, the classic play by Sam Shepard, where two brothers slowly destroy each other.

The film is bleakly funny; in moments of Thomas Wake’s incoherence, I couldn’t stop thinking about that line from Blazing Saddles about “authentic frontier gibberish”. Accompany this with a few animated gifs of the old salty sea dog from the Simpsons and you have much of The Lighthouse. There’s rage and humour in equal measures.

The Lighthouse movie poster

While I appreciated the art inspired horror, as viewers, we’re not given enough to process the symbolism of the mythology. There are tentacles, dripping ooze, malevolent seagulls and the powerful metaphor of the lighthouse itself. But the meaning of film is left to be interpreted a little too widely for me. The Lovecraftian mythos needed to be deconstructed rather than enforced; that the only woman in this movie is a sexualised mermaid is telling in 2020.

I rather suspect if two women went out to the lighthouse we wouldn’t be in this predicament.

Overall, there are some great aspects of the film – cinematography and performances – but the creative elements don’t always hold together as well as they could. My inherent frustration with The Lighthouse lies in those glimpses of brilliance; with some finessing, and restraint on the divisive directorial choices, it could have become an even greater film. Yarr.

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