At one point in Robert Eggers’s nightmarish dreamscape The Lighthouse, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) holds forth over the cowering form of Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). Wake curses his acolyte to the depths with intimations of mythology, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Old Testament fire-and-brimstone, as the camera maintains a static shot of Wake’s deeply shadowed face and increasingly crazed face. As Wake finishes, the shot remains on his face before cutting away to Winslow, who finally responds: “All right. I like the cooking.”
This scene is quintessential for the film, a combination of the profound and the comedic that jams together American tall tales, Romantic poetry, Gothic horror, mythological overtones, and Biblical references. Eggers comes out with a baffling, remarkable, messy film that will either work for audiences, or will fail miserably. Or perhaps both, and at the same time.
The Lighthouse’s plot, such as it is, is about Winslow, a former logger now in training to become a “wickie,” or lighthouse keeper, under the tutelage of Wake. The pair are set to be holed up in a lighthouse for two weeks, during which Winslow becomes increasingly annoyed by Wake’s heavy-handed demands and refusal to allow him access to the lamp. When two weeks spirals into much longer, the pair enter into a love/hate relationship fueled by alcohol and incipient madness that threatens to destroy them both.
The Lighthouse deals with masculine myth-making in much the same way that The Witch deals with the violence of patriarchal myths imposed upon the feminine. The central character are less real human beings and more complicated archetypes, fluidly changing their signifieds as rapidly as they shift dynamics. The conflict between Winslow and Wake shifts between comradery and desire, and violent hatred—one minute, the pair are singing and dancing together, the next trying to kill each other with anything to hand. The sudden shifts in tension keeps the audience off-kilter, uncertain what will happen next, or if either man will survive the conflict. The construction of the mise-en-scene begins as claustrophobic and becomes even more so as the film goes on, the slow destruction of the lighthouse and its contents mirroring the dissolution of the men’s sanity. What is real, what’s imagined, what’s madness, and what’s mythology blur together until the viewer is forced to passively accept whatever comes next.
This film is entirely dependent on Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Neither has any place to hide. Dafoe doubles down on an almost cartoonish, “old-timey sailor” character, a sort of mashup of Captain Ahab and Long John Silver, with shades of an Old Testament Jehovah. But it would be unfair to dismiss his performance as a caricature, for he does so much more than that. He’s a riveting screen presence, toeing the line between terrifying and comedic, shifting from one to the other so fluidly that at times he forces the audience to sit in awe of such power. Pattinson has a somewhat clearer trajectory with his character, who pushes back against the autocratic power of his elder and might (or might not) be going insane in the process. But the film is really about the two of them as a combined force, the conflict and the hate and the passion that bubbles and explodes and then dampens down, only to erupt again into either love or hate or, possibly, purple prose.
How much The Lighthouse works or doesn’t depends entirely on your perspective; there’s perhaps no film currently in theaters that so catalyzes the subjectivity of art. Are Dafoe’s raging histrionics too extreme, too off-putting to be comprehensible? Do the hysterical combinations of Romanticism and mythological madness overburden the viewers? Is this entire film an exercise in a director’s hubris, with no real depth to back it up, or is it a wild dive into the American and masculine psyche, conjuring mythic images juxtaposed with bombastic celebrations of Rabelaisian excess? Is it just sound and fury, or does it, ultimately, signify something?
To be honest, I’m not sure. The film worked for me, in the sense that I wanted to return to it, to dive into its wildness and extremity and see what could be dredged from the depths. I left the theater feeling I had seen something profound, even if I wasn’t convinced that it all worked as it needed to. Other viewers –including other critics – took away nothing and wanted to return to it less. And maybe that is what’s ultimately within The Lighthouse, concealed in its winding corridors, bombastic pronouncements, and sonorous booms of the foghorn. Perhaps it’s less about what’s meant to be there, and more about what we take away from it; that the inaccessible light might be our salvation or our destruction, or both at the same time. Perhaps the only thing I can guarantee about it is, like it or hate it, you shall never be bored.