Released: 6th February
Seen: 3rd September
Back in February, in the before times when we had hope that this year wouldn’t be a total garbage fire, I wrote up a list of Oscar predictions. This was way back in the before times when Parasite winning a bunch of awards felt like it was a sign that this year wasn’t going to be a constantly depressing mess. In that prediction post, between my complaining about snubs and my general apathy because I expected the ceremony to be safe and bland, in the Best Cinematography category I brought up The Lighthouse. While I hadn’t seen it because it was released the day before I posted that prediction list, I was confident that a black and white film shot like an old 30s flick might make the Oscar voters have a shattering climax. Well, it’s now about 6 months later, I’ve been basically stuck at home for a very very long time and going quite mad so a film about two lighthouse keepers slowly losing their minds feels depressingly appropriate.
Because that’s basically what The Lighthouse is, roughly 2 hours of a pair of gifted actors playing lighthouse keepers who get stuck on the island they’re working on and slowly lose their sanity. It’s a film loaded with enough subtext and visual metaphor to justify an hour long video essay, is basically made to show off the talents of its two leads and is the confirmation we didn’t need that any film by Robert Eggars is going to be worth looking at because the man has some messed up ideas and I love every single one of them. The most blunt plot description I could come up with is “Two men work in a lighthouse, get obscenely drunk, try to fuck a mermaid and go insane” and even that doesn’t feel like it does the film justice.
It’s a confusing ride and intentionally so, actual plot and story structure is irrelevant here. This is really a mood piece, they’re going for a very specific strange tone and it works so well. Everything from the claustrophobia of the framing (that 1.19:1 aspect ratio does so much heavy lifting and it’s glorious) to the ominous overpowering blare of the foghorn to the intense lighting choices all help to create a film that puts you in a headspace almost designed to freak you out. It doesn’t need jumpscares or a lot of violence to make you unnerved, the sight of the sea crashing like angry black blood will do that for you.
That’s just the atmosphere, the best thing about this film are the performances by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson which are just jaw dropping. If I’d seen this before I wrote my predictions post, I would’ve been so bitter about these two being ignored because they manage to make this insane weirdness actually work. Every scene with the two of them feels like a battle that could turn horrifically violent at any second, you’re almost waiting for one of them to just throw the other into the raging sea.
Every single motif, from the allusions to Melville to the homoerotic subtext is relying on them to make it work and they pull it off. Seriously, this film is throwing so much stuff into the subtext that in any other hands it wouldn’t work. Hell, in any other hands a scene where someone curses their roommate because the roommate doesn’t like how their lobster is cooked could seem cheesy but throw that scene to Dafoe and it’s one of the best moments in the film and this film is just full of great moments.
The Lighthouse is simultaneously a film that is unlike anything that I’ve ever seen before and also one that feels like it would slip right in with old 40s films. It feels fresh and timeless at the same time, purely because everyone is fully committed to this strange little story. It sets itself a goal of messing with the audience and sure enough it does exactly that. It had me going almost the entire way through and delivered something I couldn’t really have expected going in. I’m in awe of this film, how far they went with the concept and how much of it actually works. It might not be for everyone, but it’s the kind of film that is undeniably original.