The Lighthouse is writer-director Robert Eggers’ second effort after The Witch, which happened to win the Indiana Film Journalists’ Association award for Best Original Vision in 2016. I championed it during the deliberations despite not actually liking The Witch much. My appreciation for that film has grown over the years, although I still think it tries to have its cake and eat it too by answering whether the paranoia that drives its surreal historical horror show was justified. The Lighthouse learns from the mistake, delivering one of the most immaculately designed psychological shit-shows of the decade.
Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is a wandering worker who takes a job helping care for an isolated lighthouse somewhere on the upper east coast of the United States. The year is 18-something-something; it hardly matters because time itself seems to stop after a few rounds of his bleak and mundane daily duties. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is his only companion on the island, the longtime keeper of the lighthouse. He’s an old sailor who speaks, in Eggers fashion, with colloquial language of the era. He also brings to mind Horatio McCallister from The Simpsons, if that old sailor was a complete monster. Wake refuses to allow Winslow into the peak of the lighthouse to tend to its light, relegating him to menial support work on the caretakers’ home and grounds.
From there it’s the simple matter of following Winslow’s descent into madness (or enlightenment?) as loneliness and bad company start to grate on his psyche. Mermaids, sea monsters and curses all come into play one way or another. He also jerks off. A lot. It’s very similar to The Witch with how it explores folklore and superstition through isolation and psychological horror, exploring the way in which the central mythical stories came to be in the social contexts they inhabit. In fact, zoom into an even more salient commonality within that general thematic zone: Each film uses myths as a gateway into exploring male sexuality, longing and rituals put in play to socially structure folklore.
The Witch is about women, both the mystique that men see and the experience women themselves have coping with patriarchal structures that try to control them. The Lighthouse is, obviously, more directly about men trapped at the bottom of the totem pole. Alone together. Frustrated, destructive and self-immolating. The two go hand-in-hand as the best folk horror in decades.
Director Martin Scorsese was recently pilloried for speaking candidly about his feelings regarding big-budget blockbusters. “Theme-park rides,” he called them. Fine by me; I could care less about how he feels, although his description isn’t necessarily wrong. Those films are experiences of a heightened, positive kind that provide a happily manageable dopamine kick. Like a drop tower that goes up, pauses, drops, rinse, repeat. What you see is what you get, and I love them.
The Lighthouse is the precise opposite kind of ride in the most literal sense: It’s like being shot down into the depths of something you don’t understand and can’t comprehend, and it never brings you back up. It is pure sensory descent. The constricted aspect ratio makes the entire movie focused and claustrophobic; Eggers’ sound design is immersive, wet and pounding. Even having seen his previous film, this is nothing like nothing you’d expect, and certainly nothing you’d stand in line for eager to feel a nice, pleasant kick. Films like The Lighthouse are strange delights with a fullness of vision rarely seen. Aly commented after we left the theater that The Lighthouse is like Annihilation‘s fucked-up cousin; if you liked that movie, it’s safe to say you’ll like this one.
The Lighthouse will not make very much money, but it will never be forgotten once you’ve given it a whirl. It won’t let you go.It is some wild shit.