What is the difference between a “psychological” horror movie and all the other kinds of horror movies? Probably in how slow-paced and bizarre the director is willing to make his final product. The Lighthouse, directed by Robert Eggers and featuring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattison, is a tall, creaking, alien edifice of the bizarre. And as with many a good psychological thriller, The Lighthouse offers several levels of exquisitely-rendered weirdness and forces the audience to figure out which level it’s on at any given point. With the film’s black-and-white (mostly black) cinematography, Mark Koven’s pounding, low-register score, and the archaic Popeye-the-sailor dialogue spilling from the actors’ mouths, figuring out how weird things are getting in The Lighthouse becomes no easy task. Audience members can’t just passively wait to be frightened. Eggers forces them to interpret the uncanny goings-on until his broader vision is conveyed or until they succumb to the film’s glacial pacing and fall asleep (which I was tempted to do several times).
The story is film-school simple with two characters and one isolated location. It seemingly takes place in the late nineteenth century, on a tiny island off the shore of New England which is home to (of course) a lighthouse. The two men, Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Dafoe), are “wickies” – lighthouse caretakers – contracted to maintain the lighthouse for several weeks. The elderly but alert Wake is the boss, and his moods often swing violently from curmudgeonly to high-spirited. Winslow’s complaints about his cooking inspires him to deliver a passionate speech seemingly in verse. In a different scene, Winslow’s skepticism regarding Wake’s superstitious belief that it’s bad luck to kill a seagull leads Wake to strike him. Seagulls harbor the souls of dead sailors, you see.
From a thespian – or perhaps a thespianous – perspective (if I may coin a term), Willem Dafoe’s performance is magnificent. For this reviewer, who knows nothing of the milieu being portrayed, Dafoe’s mastery of the argot, cadence, and accent of New England seafaring men from over a century ago overwhelms. I have no idea how real it is, but every time Dafoe opens his mouth, The Lighthouse becomes more fascinating. Dafoe is a funny-looking guy to begin with, and with his peg-legged limp, his scraggly beard, and his marvelously raspy yet sonorous voice, we have a performance worthy of Fellini. This is not to say that Pattinson was underwhelming in any way. The script simply called for less from him when it comes to dialogue. It seems he was cast largely because when he keeps his mouth shut and his big eyes wide open, he seems simultaneously creepy and scared to death; at least from this reviewer’s perspective.
The cinematography combined with the nightmarish score throbs horror with almost every shot. The Lighthouse is one of those films that could produce hundreds of stills in order to convey the creepiness of the director’s vision. We often cut from barely-backlit interiors to the bright, seagull-congested outdoors on the island’s beach. The most powerful scenes often transpire with over three-quarters of the screen cast in pitch-black and skirt the line between minimal and minimalist when it comes to lighting. Eggers also likes to hide scene cuts in complete darkness as he slowly tracks the camera (always slowly) behind walls or furniture, or straight up through ceilings. With the eerie (Tom) Waitsian score seemingly culled from electric double basses and cellos, as well as from a pounding imitation of the lighthouse foghorn (or maybe that was the foghorn – I don’t know), The Lighthouse becomes nothing less than a technical masterpiece.
From a narrative standpoint, the weirdness manifests on three levels. First, there’s Wake, whose elevated language seems derived straight from Melville or Conrad. In many ways, he comes across as a no-account crank, yet he seems to speak in verse. He exhibits a playwright’s literariness, and, like watching a Shakespeare play, it is easy to suspend one’s disbelief that this is really happening. Dafoe’s effortless performance and his deftly-written monologues make it so. Getting past this, the viewer must deal with the character’s antiquated idiosyncrasies, his foghorn farts, and the fact that he likes to climb up the lighthouse tower naked and do God knows what in the lantern room.
The second level entails dreams – or dreamland, dreamscapes, what have you. The pattern emerges often in The Lighthouse, with Winslow doing some mundane chore like dumping out the chamber pots or hauling kerosene up the lighthouse’s Escheresque staircase, and then things just get weirder and weirder until the viewer concludes that what he’s seeing must be a dream. This includes visions of mermaids, oddly insistent and intrusive seagulls, and something unbelievably large and slimy slithering on the floor of the lantern room whenever Wake is up there naked. Then, Eggers cuts back to normalcy with Wake chugging booze and chattering about his ex-wives or whatever, and forces the viewer to assume that Winslow has woken up. Eggers knows how the cinematic mind works, and plays expertly on the audience’s rational expectations with adroit flashes of the irrational. As in a really bad dream, this builds and builds as the film goes on.
The final level of weirdness is the supernatural. At some point, the viewer must choose whether this is all happening in Winslow’s cabin-feverish mind or is indeed the result of something sinister from the great beyond. I don’t have an answer for that, because frankly, I don’t care. If it’s the former, then The Lighthouse is a story about mental illness without making that explicit. And if it’s the latter, then it’s about nothing at all; or worse, it’s about using cinematic and literary tricks to spook the shit out of people. It’s like Halloween for adults. To me, this is manipulative and dishonest. That it’s accomplished with Hitchcockian brilliance doesn’t make it any less so.
The Lighthouse is certainly taller, creakier, and more alien-looking than most films of its type. Fans of the genre will enjoy exploring it since the confluence of silhouette cinematography, righteously-ramshackle set design, and a magnificent, toothy performance by a bearded, corncob-smoking Dafoe makes the film both unique and unforgettable. Beyond that, however, The Lighthouse signifies little more than a beguiling challenge to untangle Egger’s spooky webs for 110 minutes.
There’s little meaning or sense in the story: Two guys work closely together on an island. They go crazy. Bad things happen. And in the end, we’re left wondering whether the island is cursed or if one of the men is a whole lot crazier than we first imagined. Further, many of the decisions the characters make are baffling and unmotivated. Why, for example, does Winslow become obsessed with the lens of the lighthouse tower? And why, oh why do we have to see him masturbate to a tiny engraved mermaid and then scream when he climaxes? One reason is as good as the next, but the best one seems to be that Robert Eggers wanted to make the creepiest art film since Un Chien Andalou – and he may have succeeded. But in doing so, he removed all connection to the mainland, and therefore to humanity and the deeper mysteries surrounding ordinary people whenever they’re not seducing mermaids or morphing into octopi.
The Lighthouse is essentially a high-IQ funhouse, the cinematic cross between Lovecraft and Poe: It’s creepy for creepy’s sake. Eggers’ characters don’t serve themselves as men or as part-divine creatures of God; they serve him, Eggers, the psychological horror auteur. The Lighthouse is very good for what it is, but given how sublimely weird it turned out to be and the high levels of skill and craftsmanship that went into making every aspect of it, the film disappoints for what it could have been.
Spencer J. Quinn is a frequent contributor to Counter-Currents and the author of the novel White Like You.