MovieSunday: The Lighthouse


There have been many reviews of this historical/mythical/horror film but none that seems to boil the
story down to its essence:  the struggle between two men for control of a great big phallic symbol, one with a powerful light at its tip. (Gee, what could that last be?)

When I saw it, the audience was almost entirely men, plus a few women and who came with husbands or boyfriends.  Just saying.

Now let’s talk about the film.

The moment is the late 1890s, a time before sonar, electric lights or indoor plumbing.  The setting is a lighthouse whose beacon and foghorn warn ships away from the shallows near a small island off the Atlantic coast of New England.

Onto the island comes a former lumberman, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) to spend several weeks as the second of two “wickies” who tend the lighthouse.  The lead wickie, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), took up his job after a long career as a seaman.

Wake quickly makes clear that he’s the boss and orders Winslow to do the scut work.  Winslow hauls coal in a wheelbarrow, wrestles barrels of oil up and down stairs, fetches water from the well, empties chamber pots, cleans floors and whitewashes the lighthouse exterior.  Over time, he comes to resent Wake, who drinks copious amounts of liquor (gin, no doubt, given the age), shares sea dog superstitions about seagulls and a little about his foreshortened family life.  Late every night, Wake locks himself in the top of the lighthouse, tending its enormous light and refusing Wake any access, which Wake deeply desires.

“The light is mine!” says Wake.

The atmosphere of the story makes that first act more interesting than it sounds.  First, the film is shot in black and white, and in an almost square format, 1.19:1, that has been mostly unseen since the days of the early talkies.  The lighthouse living space after sunset is dim and uncomfortable.  And there are loud, dissonant noises from the pulsing foghorn and roaring boilers that punctuate the natural outdoors in full daylight.

On his last evening at dinner with Wake,  Winslow agrees finally to drink with the other man.  Unfortunately, a major storm the next morning delays Winslow’s pickup for an unknown period.  The two men’s drinking and and dancing and fighting continue until the gin is gone, at which point they switch to kerosene.  The final act is marked by hallucinatory experiences, disturbing revelations and suggestions of mythic characters from puzzling mermaids to Neptune to Proteus to Prometheus, and, finally, to what seems to be outright insanity.

The Lighthouse is not the sort of film that will attract a mass audience, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a look.  Its two actors play very well against each other in a well-managed background of increasing tension.  The filming and technical effects seem just right for the time and setting.

Like virtually every entrant in the now-popular horror genre, The Lighthouse plot contains what feel like several false steps and a conclusion that doesn’t exactly add up.  Presumably the point is to invite viewers to decide for themselves what is real and what is imagined.

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