The Lighthouse (2019)

*. There’s a lot to admire about The Lighthouse, the follow-up to The Witch by writer-director Robert Eggers. I like it quite a bit, though maybe not up to the level of the press it got. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is well made and goes its own way.
*. In what follows I just want to discuss a few points that struck me as noteworthy, and avoid entering into debates over the film’s meaning, any Jungian interpretations, its critique of toxic masculinity (Eggers: “Nothing good can happen when two men are left alone in a giant phallus”), or political dead ends like whether or not the lighthouse keepers are gay.
*. The first point has to do with a surface resemblance I felt to The Caretaker. Maybe it was the use of black-and-white, but more likely it was the idea of a pair of weirdos living in isolation and gradually coming undone.
*. Like I say, it’s only a surface resemblance. But the atmosphere does have some of the same sweaty male pong (to use a Pinter word), or odour of anxiety and threat. It also has its absurd moments, like the “What?” “What?” bit. But what struck me the most was, and this is a negative takeaway, the ungainliness of Eggers’ language (the script was co-written with Robert’s brother Max).
*. Pinter, of course, was writing for the stage, which is kind of like a movie in one long take (or two or three long takes). This makes rhythm a lot more important. In a movie the visual rhythm of editing is more essential. This may help explain why I found the dialogue in The Lighthouse to be really rough when I compared it to Pinter. Willem Dafoe’s eruptions into a Shakespearean-King James fustian are fun, but the rest of the time I didn’t get a feeling I was listening to real people speaking normally or naturally. There was no flow. And this seemed like a significant drawback in a movie that you’d think would be built around its talk. It’s really not. It’s made out of its photography. The images say a lot more than the words.

*. Another point I found interesting is the sub-genre of, for lack of a better term, isolation horror and its growing popularity. Of course a sense of isolation has often gone along with various horror plots because it leaves our victims removed from any hope of rescue. Hence the isolation of the camp in Carpenter’s The Thing, or all those cabin-in-the-woods movies. But those are a bit different, since the cabin in The Evil Dead, or Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever, at least starts out as a fun getaway for a bunch of young people.
*. What I’m talking about is a situation where the isolation is an integral part of the horror, perhaps even giving rise to it. The archetype here may be the resort in The Shining. Sure there are ghosts, but we can’t help but feel that being so isolated is what’s driving Jack Torrance crazy. To paraphrase Eggers, nothing good can happen when a family is left alone in a giant, empty hotel.
*. The Witch was a similar sort of thing, with the family cast out from their village and having to go it alone in the bush. Nothing good will come of that. More recently there was The Lodge. Setting your new girlfriend up in a remote, if luxurious, lodge with your kids for some quality bonding time. Nothing good will come of that. Or the isolation of the girl in The Eyes of My Mother. How much contact does she have with the outside world? Doesn’t look like much. Nothing good will come of that.
*. Is there more of this now, or is it just an unrepresentative sample I’ve been viewing? And if there is more of it now, what does it tell us about a society where we are more connected — living in cities, in higher density neighbourhoods, and interacting online all the time — than ever? Does this make isolation more frightening? Or are these movies an expression of an anxiety that despite all our connectedness, or because of it, is making us only feel more alone?

*. The final point I want to make has to do with the ending. I don’t much like it. What it reminded me of was the ending of Annihilation. After a lot of build-up we arrive (at a lighthouse, in both movies) where I guess some sort of great secret is revealed. But what?
*. Eggers tells us that “I’m more about questions than answers in this movie,” but how far do we let him go with that? I like ambiguity and resistance to closure as much as the next guy, but it seems to me that at some point you have to show us what you’ve got. You can’t just say a door opens and there’s a bright light and then . . . Robert Pattinson sees God? One of Lovecraft’s Ancient Ones? Or does he just stick his hand on the lamp and get fried? I really feel that an ending like this suggests a failure of the imagination on some level. Your whole movie has been building up to this point and then you play coy? This is too cute by half, and not half as deep.
*. I wonder if seeing this movie in a theatre would have made the nearly square aspect ratio stand out more. Watching it on TV I hardly noticed because the image was usually so dark anyway I couldn’t always tell where the edges of the frame were. A claustrophobic effect? Hm. I’m not sure. The mise en scène didn’t feel crowded, which is the usual way of evoking a sense of the walls closing in.
*. Still, it’s a good picture. The photography in particular is terrific, not just for the starkness of the black-and-white but the texture that’s achieved in the dark buildings at night, or outside during the storms. Dafoe is great. Pattinson I thought a bit out of his depth, and he seemed to be having trouble holding on to his accent at the end. Not a movie I’m in a rush to watch again anytime soon, but a good stretch above most of what Hollywood has been coming out with lately.

5 thoughts on “The Lighthouse (2019)

    1. Alex Good Post author

      The Caretaker has always had a special place in my head because I saw it when I was a kid and it made a big impact. So it was easy to make a connection here.

  1. S.D. McKinley

    I didn’t really like The Witch, but I thought this movie was amazing. I scoff at movies that have no originality in the cinematography process, especially the ones that are simply head framers, flipping back and forth between talking heads. BUT, this is no where near that, my favorite movies all have granularity in the creative cinematography department and this one might just be in the top twenty list, somewhere.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yes, this has a very distinctive and original look. They didn’t just choose to shoot in black-and-white and call it a day but did something with it.


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