In Theaters Now entries give insight on films currently in theaters. There is a brief review, followed by a deeper dive with SPOILERS behind the cut.
To paraphrase someone paraphrasing Freud, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar… unless it’s an 80 foot phallus symbolizing man’s hubristic attempt to navigate the tempestuous deeps of the sea and therefore also the human subconscious.
Let’s dive in!
The Lighthouse (2019) is a historical thriller/horror film by the writer/director team of Robert and Max Eggers, fresh off their success of 2016’s jolly lighthearted romp, The VVitch. If you haven’t seen The VVItch please know I just made a joke and with the exception of Black Phillip, it is neither lighthearted nor jolly. The Eggerses have already cemented their reputation as masters of subverting horror tropes with The VVitch, and The Lighthouse delivers more of the same, yet different. Magnificent costumes, an eerie score, and some soon-to-be legendary performances all combine to make an instant classic.
From the very opening scene, the film establishes itself with an aspect ratio of 1:19.1, which means the image is square. Filmed with a variety of cameras and lenses, including 35mm and some antique equipment dating back to 1918, the resultant effect is distinctive. There was even a little sign on the way into the theater stating, more or less, ‘Yes it is supposed to be that way please don’t tell us there’s something wrong with it.’ Between the peculiar aspect ratio, the black and white photography, stark compositions, and claustrophobic but vivid angles, it feels almost as if you’re watching some brilliant throwback from the dawn of cinema, the age where so many cinematic horror traditions were founded. Another reason I was reminded of that age was Pattinson’s performance, as his wide eyes and shaggy hair reminded me of Conrad Veidt in the immortal Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
The story is fairly straightforward: Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson, sporting a more than passing 19th century Maine accent) has found work for the United States Lighthouse Service and is being dropped off to join Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe, genetically engineered to play this role; if he doesn’t go full Hemingway in the next 10 years we will have failed as a civilization).
The Lighthouse stands on a godforsaken, storm-washed rock infested with stroppy seabirds. The remote environment has already claimed one life, as Winslow is replacing a young man who went mad, claiming mermaids were singing to him. From the moment he arrives, Wake rides Winslow to get to work, quickly establishing a nautically flavored pecking order. Winslow is soon given almost more work than he can humanly do, and resentment blooms between the two men. The sonorous blast of a foghorn, noticeable early on and which should be jarring, inures itself and becomes no more remarkable than gulls crying or waves crashing. Wake gives Winslow task after task and insists they be done to his exacting standard, but the one thing Winslow is forbidden from servicing is The Light.
As the story winds out, it challenges the audience to read between the obvious threads: Is Wake real? Is Winslow? What really happened to the previous employee? How much of Wake’s Old Salt routine is an act, if any? What the hell is up between him and The Light?
Although Winslow manages the punishing routine well enough during his month-long assignment, a bad storm strands him on the island and he, already starting to unravel, comes straight off the spool. But anyone who’s watched the trailer knows that; the real treat is seeing it happen, how, and why. Viewers quickly realize that mysteries abound within Winslow, too.
Fans of H.P. Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and the other voices of early 20th century Weird fiction will find plenty to love, as well as the dialogue, which was inspired by both Shakespeare and Herman Mellville. I will say that when the film comes out for home release I will appreciate the subtitles, as I sometimes couldn’t understand the dialogue and certainly missed crucial plot info. Fans of season 1 of The Terror, would also greatly appreciate the film and its depiction of 19th century nautical life.
And now… To the Spoilers!
It’s a very rare film that makes me lean back and say to myself ‘I wonder if these people’s problems would be solved with some sex.’ That thought did occur to me early on and I wondered if such an act would have created a more caring bond between the two, and perhaps released the pressure on Winslow’s building madness.
Then the fight over Wake’s cooking happened, and I realized that no, sex would NOT help these two people any more than using the same toothbrush or borrowing each other’s clothes. Compassion doesn’t just sprout from such an interaction, and Winslow (later, Thomas Howard) reveals himself to be quite incapable of such feeling. In fact I’m still processing what did and did not happen between the two men, especially once Wake pointed out that it was WINSLOW who destroyed the dory with an axe.
The reason I came up with such a seemingly random thought was multifold:
- Two lonely people in need of release
- One tries to kiss the other while drunken slow-dancing – I think Wake went for it first but Winslow sure finished it by starting a fight
- During Winslow’s mermaid sex dream, at one point he imagines himself on the bottom, taking the place of the mermaid; the way it was filmed and blocked made it seem like he was imagining switching places with her and receiving, rather than just her sitting on top – and now the phrase ‘her sitting on top’ raises all kinds of questions about mermaid sex logistics that I just don’t have the heart to Google. Even for an Atheist, Googling ‘mermaid sex positions’ on The Lord’s Day seems like asking for trouble.
Speaking of mermaid sex!
The mermaid on the Starbucks cup that has two tails is based on an early mermaid design: Medieval and Renaissance mermaids were always split so that these anima figures of male fantasy could perform their role that had been unfairly thrust upon them by their male imaginers. But no surprise that in the Victorian era, they closed the mermaids up and made them impenetrable. So that single-tail mermaid silhouette has become the archetypal mermaid look for people today, and also what a mermaid would have looked like in the period of the movie. But we still had to figure out how mermaids can copulate and create more mermaids. So, we studied shark genitals. ~ Robert Eggers
So that is a thing you know now.
Also I found myself reflecting, ‘When women get nasty with merpeople, you get The Shape of Water. When men do it, you get The Lighthouse.’
Another quote from Robert Eggers:
Nothing good can happen when two men are trapped alone in a giant phallus.
I think he means ‘…when two sexually repressed men laboring under a broken power dynamic rooted in toxic masculinity…’ but I’d hate to put words in his mouth.
At one point, Winslow/Howard’s duality is foreshadowed by a literal shadow behind him – during mealtimes when the two sit at their little table, the lantern throws Howard’s shadow behind him, and again on the stairs when he creeps up to spy on Wake. And just as Prometheus, who quested for forbidden knowledge, wound up punished by the gods, so too does Winslow/Howard come to a horrible, bird-related end. I really appreciated the shout-outs to Greek mythology, with mentions of Neptune, Triton and such. That gave the whole story an extra layer of depth.
Overall I see exactly why the film has generated so much buzz, and deservedly so. I could absolutely go on and continue unpacking this new masterpiece, but I’d rather go in search of other people’s views on it for now.
Thanks for reading, and have a fantastic day (or night, you know, whichever’s applicable).