I’m writing this review in the wake of a handful of “name” directors speaking up in the press about their dislike for the Marvel movies. As much as I enjoy them, everyone is entitled to their opinions, and while I don’t get the strength of their dislike (Coppola said they were despicable – surely there are bigger things in the world that justify that pejorative), they make a good point: by being so globally successful, their appeal blinds younger viewers to the power of cinema, the art of it. When all young people hear about is cinematic superheroes, the risk is that greater movies don’t gain traction in the minds of the next generation of moviegoers, who instead become conditioned to spectacle. If that happens, it will be a shame, because it leaves moviemakers like Robert Eggers relegated to that of niche status.
I loved The Witch. It was one of my favourite movies of the year when I saw it, and it remains a terrific viewing experience. Other than the fact the subject material was near and dear to me – an occult movie (I hesitate to call it a horror movie) that felt researched and authentic – it was written and directed with great style. As soon as I’d watched it, the next thing on my mind was how soon I could see more of his work. Unfortunately, other than a 20 minute version of Poe’s classic The Tell-Tale Heart, I’d need to wait three years for his next work, The Lighthouse. And I was not disappointed.
Set in 1890, this is the hoary tale of Thomas Wake, a lighthouse keeper played by Willem Dafoe, and Ephraim Winslow, played by Robert Pattinson. Winslow is set for a four-week temp gig to help maintain the lighthouse and its living quarters while Wake attends to the important task of making sure the lighthouse prevents ships from approaching the rocky shore, in what appears to be the Maine coastline. Both men have secrets of their own as we find out over the weeks that their relationship develops through various levels of complexity. At first, Wake treats Winslow as no more than a common servant, but Winslow does nothing to endear himself to Wake either, spurning the older man’s misguided attempts to bond. As the story goes on, the relationship between both men is fascinating from a story development point of view, and highly watchable for the audience. I found the performances here to be an acting masterclass, astonishingly raw and magnetic. Partly because of the natural talents of Pattinson and Dafoe, but also attributable to the formidable direction of Eggers. I could complain that some of the latter scenes feel like overlong callbacks to previous, more effective scenes, but I’ll give Eggers the benefit of the doubt because I really liked this movie.
In terms of story content, strange things happen on the isolated island the lighthouse is home to, but not all the time – it’s not that kind of movie. It’s not a story of monsters from the deep, although it might be. It’s not a horror movie, although it might be. What it is, is an unreliable narrator movie. Winslow is the viewpoint character, whose mind becomes unhinged by the severe weather conditions, the isolation, and being companion to a grizzled old seadog who seems off his rocker already. You can understand why Winslow reaches his snapping point even before he reveals a secret about himself in Act 2 – the omnipresent wind and rain, the harsh treatment at the hands of Wake, and Wake’s own superstitions and forebodings would drive most people off the deep end, to the point where, as the audience, we might think we know this is a just story of madness if it were not for Egger’s very literal ending to The Witch. It’s because of this that I consider The Lighthouse truly worthy of the adjective “Lovecraftian”.
Now hold on – The Lighthouse is not adapted from any story by Lovecraft. It probably wasn’t even directly inspired by any work of Lovecraft’s either, but as someone who has extensively read much of Lovecraft’s work and volumes of his correspondence, The Lighthouse was very close in spirit to Lovecraft’s work, even more so than actual adaptations, such as From Beyond, and The Reanimator. As I watched the movie, each new plot point seemed written by Lovecraft himself, from the portentous early scenes featuring a seagull – certainly inspired by Coleridge’s supernatural epic, The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, but also deeply evocative of Lovecraft’s own way of attaching malevolent intent to otherwise normal animals – to the theme of madness that grows from characters too isolated and withdrawn to form attachments with other humans. Both Wake and Winslow are on this piece of rock to escape their inability to deal with the world outside. If you strip away the simple-minded tropes that pop-culture has used to define Lovecraft’s actual work, you end up with material that very much resembles The Lighthouse.
From the opening apocalyptically deafening roar of the island’s massive foghorn to the bleak conditions, to some truly arresting visuals that may or may not be hallucinatory, this is an uncompromising movie. Even the highs are the result of alcohol abuse, not any natural relaxation of tension between both men. Even when they become blind drunk together and appear to have finally bonded, their true feelings toward each other are never far from the surface and explode with greater frequency and ferocity the further along it goes. October 2019 has been a good month for solid acting work – as brilliant as Joaquin Phoenix was in Joker, both Pattinson and Dafoe are so good I felt I could have watched much more than the sub-two-hour running time of the movie. Dafoe, in particular, has a very long, unedited speech that’s incredible to watch. Not only because of his salty old seadog way of talking, but also the entire content of the speech. It’s both bonkers and completely riveting at the same time, echoing Ahab. I was gripped by it from first to last words.
The possibly hallucinatory images experienced by Winslow are really something too, especially in one particular scene that takes place atop the lighthouse viewing deck that is shot and framed in such a way to resemble something not just eerie, but mythical in nature. These scenes can be interpreted in whatever manner one chooses to, literal or figurative, but the final scene is where Eggers reveals his own intent. Shot in such a way that the previous weird scenes are experienced directly by Winslow, the climactic final scene (not the coda that follows) is shot from the vantage point of an observer, telling me that whether or not the other scenes were the result of a fragmenting mind, what happens at the end is actually happening. And what an ending it was – ALL style, little actual content, and it worked magnificently for me.
With only two months left of the year, I can’t really see any movies beating this one to my top spot. It has the same rating I gave Avengers: Endgame, but I acknowledge that the latter was mostly a collection of highly satisfying fan service moments that appealed to my comic book-loving nerd side. Almost every moment of The Lighthouse was terrific to sit through. I know exactly what Scorsese is saying when he criticizes the Marvel movies, and you know, sometimes a good burger hits all the right spots. But they always make you appreciate a great meal even more.
© 2019, Andrew Hope