Robert Eggers’ acclaimed – and Oscar-nominated – second feature is, in some respects, a similar beast to his previous The Witch, whereby isolated individuals of bygone eras are subjected to the unsparing attentions of nature. In his scheme of things, nature becomes an active, embodied force, one that has no respect for the line between imaginings and reality and which proceeds to test its targets’ sanity by means of both elements and elementals. All helped along by unhealthy doses of superstition. But where The Witch sustained itself, and the gradual unravelling of the family unit led to a germane climax, The Lighthouse becomes, well, rather silly.
Is that a somewhat glib verdict? I don’t think so. As noted, Eggers (with his brother Robert sharing screenplay duties) is venturing back into the territory of the mind overwhelmed by the natural world, with all the evils, fantasies and unchecked emotions that can be set loose without civilisation to distract or suppress it. But The Lighthouse’s framework authorises too much unearned escalation into unhinged states too soon, and without enough consistency to be convincing.
Ephraim Winslow/Thomas Howard (Robert Pattison) doesn’t drink a drop of spirits for his first four weeks on the rock, but he’s nevertheless very soon hallucinating enticing mermaids. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is already on the antic side, a (highly enjoyable) caricature of the salty old seadog complete with gammy leg, who strips off in the lightroom – which he exclusively occupies as his own (“Take your duties. The light is mine“) – as if he’s experiencing a nightly rite of religious ecstasy (complete with ejaculate). But he’s just crusty, not kill happy.
Essentially, the insanity that takes a hold – essentially of Howard – is insufficiently motivated. Eggers creates a great visual sense, with the black and white, 1:19:1, 35mm frame, but he fails to muster the claustrophobic encroachment on the mind that gripped Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, or even the pervasive, creeping paranoia of his previous film. Howard flips back and forth, once he is storm stranded, between getting pissed out of his gourd and performing the mundane menial chores. His state isn’t sustained, so his breaking point doesn’t convince when it comes.
At which point, The Lighthouse leaps off the deep end, with Howard’s confused perspective fracturing the timeframe and causing the muddle of little details, such as who’s doing what to whom (Wake claims weeks have passed, and tells Howard the axe attack on the boat by the elder keeper actually occurred the other way round). All culminating in Wake on a leash, buried alive – before returning for some gratuitous violence – and Howard finally venturing up to the lightroom as if re-enacting Danny Boyle’s Sunshine. But that isn’t quite the end of it: he takes a tumble, and is finished off by gulls risibly pecking him to bits. I mean, it’s very silly, isn’t it?
I was put in mind of Midsommar several times, where a lot of good work is done in establishing mood and aesthetic sense, but the filmmaker ultimately appears exhausted of inspiration for how to bring matters to a satisfying head. And so, he proceeds incautiously; so much easier just to get very messy. There’s a point where The Lighthouse’s perpetual, storm-tossed drunken abandon begins to test the patience, and it’s the sure sign of desperation that Eggers reroutes his existential character study into full-blown art gore.
There’s also that the director, despite his keen visual instincts, falls back on geek-pleasing standard visual tropes – tentacle monsters, seductive sirens, the admittedly perfectly-captured Dafoe as Triton – so doubling down on the sense that, despite the laudable focus on two actors, The Lighthouse is almost all about the visuals and the authenticity of setting rather than the content.
I’d suggest the atmosphere is a major achievement, except that Eggers fails to imbue the piece with a real sense of madness borne of isolation, or even a proper sense of setting (we have no idea of the isle’s geography, and surely the first thing Howard would do would be to explore it).
Eggers relishes the dirt, filth, depravity, the lack of hygiene, the farting, the wanking, the excrement (full in the face), the cold and the damp, the storms and desolation of the spot, but none of this actually amounts to very much. This most certainly isn’t a haunting tale, one that stays with you. It is, despite its palate, garish and grotesque, too large and lurid and obsessed with its viscera to be affecting or convincing. When its protagonists descend into drinking turps, I was put more in mind of The Goodies (who also made a memorable lighthouse episode, Lighthouse Keeping Loonies), than anything dramatically cogent.
Then there are the characters. Dafoe’s great – he always is – as the sometimes-incomprehensible Wake, mighty of beard and given to voicing his myriad superstitions, curses and tall tales. He also delivers the overwhelming majority of the picture’s laughs. But Wake isn’t allowed a soul; he’s much too much a reflection of Howard’s impression of him, his fear, hatred and, to some extent, awe.
And Pattison is reliable in his sullen intensity as Howard, but Howard only really engages as a character when he’s the subject of Wake’s tyranny. He isn’t interesting, even when he’s revealing his dark secrets. There’s an extent to which this is germane – Wake mocks Howard for being nothing special, for being just like anyone else feeling life owes them something – but it makes the lurch into more extreme territory in the final twenty minutes banal, for all its intensity. Indeed, the reverse dynamic reveal borders on, dare I say it, trite.
There are elements here, the brooding paranoia, the sexual undercurrents and over-currents felt by the men – be they in response to the environment (events go south, via the onset of the storm, after Howard kills a seagull in a frenzied rage), directed at each other, fantasised (mermaids or an all-consuming lifeforce – or lightforce), or the anarchic abandon that comes with intoxication – that Eggers handles deftly. And he’s an expert at suggesting man’s fragility in the face of nature and myth. Added to which, his depiction of insane seagulls is every bit as memorable as his goat in The Witch. And yet, The Lighthouse is a film that only seems to be saying a lot, until it boils down to saying very little.