TIFF 2019: The Lighthouse, by David Bax
Robert Eggers’ thrilling, garish, wonderfully off-putting and hilarious portrait of insanity, The Lighthouse, starts with a churning, percussive score indicating the two main characters’ level-headed determination on their way to get a job done. That sense is comically short-lived, though, as composer Mark Korven almost immediately switches gears to crazy-making, blaring drone blasts. The movie loses its grip on reality as quickly as the characters do and the results are staggering, hallucinatory and overwhelmingly satisfying.
Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is veteran lighthouse keeper (or “wickie”) accustomed to monthlong assignments on a remote island. His partner for the next four weeks is Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), new to the gig. Wake is an unsympathetic taskmaster during the day and a sentimental drunk at night but Winslow scoffs at his superior’s insistence that they not take shifts as the manual states but that the elder wickie be the only one to attend the massive lamp at the top of the tower. With only themselves and the elements to keep them company (well, maybe there’s something else on the island and in the surrounding waters), Wake and Winslow will slowly work their way into each other’s minds, inflaming paranoia and threatening violence.
Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shoot in black and white and in the nearly square 1.19:1 aspect ratio of the late 1920s and early 1930s. These limitations of the frame and color range result in a full slate of gorgeous, dreadful imagery, from the gathering storm clouds that look like a matte-painting to the shots of the mollusk-like spiral of the lighthouse’s staircase. Stunning uses of silhouettes, as well as caked-on mud and extravagant facial hair, meanwhile, often render Dafoe and Pattinson deliriously unrecognizable.
While unequivocally a horror movie, The Lighthouse only has a handful of what you’d call traditional scares. Instead, the unceasing atmosphere of dread is almost comically theatrical. Eggers blends horror and comedy, in fact, to such an extent that Wake and Winslow having a good time together becomes unnerving as their raving peals of laughter build on top of each other. Dafoe, meanwhile, is often amusing just because of his ridiculously thick accent. Talking like an honest-to-God pirate–all “aye”s and “thankee”s–he sounds like a goddamn parody, which makes it especially funny when Winslow tells him, “You sound like a goddamn parody!” Eggers is certainly enjoying himself by playing with our expectations of an avant-garde horror movie; The Lighthouse is ripe for semiotic analysis but it would take a full dissertation to sort out all of the potential metaphors here. Sex, liquor, guilt, death, luck… The monster beneath the movie could be any of these things and more.
And that’s before we even get to the Greek mythology. Poseidon, unsurprisingly, gets name checked and, crucially, so does Prometheus. So what does it all mean? Nothing. Everything. Who cares? The Lighthouse is a waking nightmare of a movie that becomes increasingly unintelligible (sometimes literally, as the character’s shouted, drunken monologues aren’t always easy to understand) as it goes. Which is as it should be. How effective would a descent into madness be if it made sense?