Isolation Madness in The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse (2019) is fitting viewing for a wild and wet and windy day, a claustrophobic tale of isolation and madness off the coast of New England which is a worthy follow-up to Robert Eggers’ feature debut The VVitch (2015).

Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) begin a four-week stint manning a lighthouse. Wake is an experienced wickie (or lighthouse keeper) with a dodgy (possibly wooden) leg and plenty of tales about life on the sea which aren’t always consistent. His previous assistant worked with him for some time but reportedly went mad and is no longer on the scene. Winslow is an experienced Canadian timberman looking for a change in scenery and employment, signing up for the new position after hearing about the high rate of pay, and it’s probably only a coincidence that the higher paying positions are more remote from civilisation and anywhere he might previously have spent an extended period of time.

Wake is a man of moods, a hard taskmaster who loosens up at dinner time, knowledgeable in the ways of the sea and equally bound to its superstitions (such as never killing a sea bird). He is also fiercely protective of the beacon – he refuses to allow Winslow access to the lantern room, reserving it as his right and at one point referring to the light as his wife. Winslow is unsuccessful at gaining access to the room, but gazing upwards through the grate of the floor at the glow he can hear panting and ecstatic moaning, see liquid oozing through the floor and… was that a tentacle sliding past?

On his first day Winslow discovers a scrimshaw carving of a mermaid hidden inside his mattress. Consigned to the most menial of tasks and in charge of stoking the generator, his physical exertions in the dimly lit depths accompanied by the relentless clashing of hellish machinery stand in stark contrast to Wake’s illuminated ecstasies at the summit. Winslow finds himself plagued by the seabirds and beginning to experience dreamlike encounters with a mermaid which straddle the line between hallucination and sexual fantasy, possibly based in reality but maddeningly elusive. Snapping and killing a sea bird shortly before they are due to be relieved at the end of their four-week contract, the wind changes and the weather worsens while the two men begin (or continue) a spiralling descent into madness. Winslow’s discovery of the corpse of his predecessor in a lobster net offshore accelerates matters, although coming as it does in the midst of an editing montage of one of his masturbatory fantasies, whether this (plausible) discovery actually occurred is difficult to tell.

The story is almost entirely a two-hander (leaving aside any people or entities who may or may not be present) and could not succeed without top-notch performances from both Dafoe and Pattinson. Willem Dafoe has built a career which allows him to take only those roles he wants, picking and choosing according to who is making the film. He has forged ongoing partnerships with many directors and keeps an eye out for the work of promising new directors. He contacted Robert Eggers after viewing The VVitch and asked to be in his next project. Among the many highlights of his performance is a magnificently extended rant calling down all the curses of the deep when his character’s culinary ability is questioned. Robert Pattinson is far less experienced and is still struggling to break away from his role as Edward Cullen in the Twilight movies (2008-2012), but his role here is a significant departure and he manages to hold his own against Dafoe.

The Lighthouse is filmed in black & white with the events compressed into a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, a tighter framing than the 1.33:1 standard of old television sets, creating a sense that the walls are closer than they should and extremely effective in evoking the cramped confines of the lighthouse. The story began as a modernisation of Edgar Allan Poe’s fragment “The Light-House” (1849) written by the director’s brother Max Eggers, but after it became bogged down, Robert and Max collaborated on writing a new script. Much as Robert went to great effort to use accurate language of the period for his puritan witchcraft movie The VVitch, here the two brothers drew on the logbooks of lighthouse keepers and the research of Sarah Orne Jewett to create similarly authentic dialogue. The film is also rich with imagery drawn from artwork by Albrecht Dürer, Sascha Schneider, Jean Delville and Arnold Böcklin. Mark Korven provides another great score for Eggers, although here it’s more of a piece with the overall sound design, blending seamlessly with the blaring of the fog horn, the rattling of machinery, the creaking of wet wood, the wailing of the elements… and even the wind of Wake’s farts.

It occurred to me after watching The Lighthouse just how small and peculiar is my personal canon of lighthouse fiction. For a setting so full of potential, there are only three other stories I can think of off the top of my head. Tangled together in my childhood so inextricably that I’m unable to determine the order in which I encountered them, they are: Doctor Who: Horror of Fang Rock (1977); The Goodies: Lighthouse Keeping Loonies (1975); and Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa at Sea [Pappan och havet] (1965). They’re not the most conventional companions for a movie like The Lighthouse, but it’s now nestled in comfortably among them. I hope it manages to find a similarly offbeat niche with other viewers.

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