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The Lighthouse – arthouse or shithouse?

The impact of The Lighthouse has been undeniable. It has received high praise from critics and sparked many a conversation among art cinephiles about the layers of subtext that lies within. But is it any good?

Eprahim Winslow and Thomas Wake standing in front of the lighthouse in their wicky uniforms

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It’s complicated

Art polarises people. It gets them talking. It is open to interpretation and often debated by critics far removed from the creator, sometimes with little clue as to what the artist’s vision ever was. That is certainly the case with The Lighthouse. No one is going to argue that it’s not good art, because art itself can’t really be measured like that. It’s more about the way art communicates with us. The x factor is the individual, who they are and where they are at when they receive that communication.

The Lighthouse communicates by abusing itself, the characters and the audience. By getting drunk. shouting like a fuckwit on talk like a pirate day, masturbating, shouting again, and then falling into a heap of ejaculate, tears and seagull shit.

Who made it?

This is director Robert Egger’s second feature film and the follow up from 2015’s The VVitch, a supernatural period horror film that also polarised audiences and received high critical acclaim.

Egger’s co-wrote The Lighthouse with his brother Max who had originality wanted to do a contemporary take on the Edgar Allan Poe story of the same name. That’s not where it ended up though, the finished product looks nothing like Poe’s story. Indeed many people have likened it to something more like the work of HP Lovecraft.

What’s it about?

Set in the late 1800s The Lighthouse tells the tale of two men assigned to tend to a lighthouse off the coast of New England. Thomas Wake is a grizzly old sea dog who’s managed the place for years, Ephrahim Winslow is the young man new to the job with a mysterious past. Regardless of the contract which states the men share the work equally, Wake tends to the lamp and cooks  the meals, Winslow does pretty much everything else. Neither man is friendly nor are they particularly likeable. 

Their contract is set for four weeks however they find themselves on the receiving end of a few bad omens and worse weather which leaves them stranded for much longer. This leads to a descent into madness resulting from isolation, hunger, too much booze and a relentless work schedule. The lines of reality and delusion become more blurred as the film goes on and each man’s idiosyncrasies grind the other down.

The cast

The cast is limited to Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. Dafoe gives one of the most insane performances of his career as Thomas Wake. He really brings the language in the movie to life through some outrageous monologues that would border on ridiculous if not for his accomplished delivery. Robert Pattinson’s Ephrahim Winslow does more than keep up in the nutcase department too. During publicity for the film Dafoe commented on Pattinson’s preparation for scenes as being a “little wacky” with him doing things like inducing vomiting, beating himself up and pissing his pants.

The production

One of the big talking points around the film is the cinematography from Jarin Blaschke. It’s not the movie you put on to show off your new top of the line OLED 6k tv. The move was shot on 35mm film, in black and white with the old Movietone aspect ratio. Not content with replicating that effect digitally they have opted for movie making the hard way. While the final product is quite a dark film, with the kind of lighting they needed to use to achieve some of the visuals effect it’s a wonder the actors didn’t go blind. How it looks though is a big part of it’s appeal and it sets a tone for the entire story.

As does the sound from Sound Designer, Damien Volpe. The ever present fog horn, wind, seagulls, creaks, groans, drips and drops are all major elements that crescendo with the onset of the characters madness. This is given extra texture courtesy of Mark Korven’s dark and experimental score.

The subtext

Eggers has said in interviews that he had modelled the characters to represent Prometheus and Proteus. Proteus was the son of Poseidon, the keeper of knowledge with a reluctance to share. Prometheus was a titan credited with creating humanity from clay who defied the gods by stealing their fire and giving it to the humans. Zeus punished him by tying him to a rock and then having an eagle eat his liver, which would grow back overnight so the process could be repeated for all eternity. For those who didn’t already guess, the fire of the gods in this movie is the coveted light atop the house.

The other subtext is of the queer kind. Two blokes alone, for a really, really long time in a building that is basically a giant phallus. Only one guy is allowed near the goodness that lies at the end of it and the other is just left to tickle the balls. When things start to get really nuts towards the climax no one would be surprised if they ended up going all the way. There’s also this dominant/submissive relationship that exists between the two of them.

It’s like 50 Shades of Moby Dick. With extra emphasis on the dick.

For those who like extra sprinkles check out the Lovecraftian imagery. Tentacles dancing in the shadows or slithering through the background and mermaids with their shark labia fuelling Winslow’s masturbation fantasies. He spends a lot of time out in the foghorn shed where he literally beats himself stupid.

The verdict

It’s all quite grotesque. Neither character is likeable and the subject matter is far from pleasant.

The performance, language and cinematography are all very good, there’s a lot to like about the Lighthouse from a technical standpoint, but not much to enjoy.

Some people get off on being punished though and for this kind of art it’s a shame that the audience has to suffer.

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