Behold: The Lighthouse, a stimulating, spellbinding assault of a movie.
Fluids splash and drip from every corner of The Lighthouse. Two men, elderly Tomas Howard (Willem Dafoe) and young Ephraim Winslow (Rob Pattinson) watch a lighthouse for a scheduled four weeks. The boat scheduled to relieve the men of their post never comes, and the men begin to torture each other. The film teases that Tom and Ephraim are really the same person a la Fight Club, but nope- in the end, they both go bat- shit crazy and die horrible, horrible deaths.
Shot in 1:16 aspect ratio with a camera that feels like it weighs 300 pounds, the film uses classic silent- movie cinematography. Unlike a silent movie, however, The Lighthouse‘s soundtrack bubbles and brims with violent sea storms and raging soliloquies, creepy sounds and taunting music. The elements simultaneously seduce and disgust the audience. It’s the type of film Edgar Allen Poe would make.
Brothers Max and Robert Eggers took inspiration from Poe’s story “The Light- House”. “The Light- House” tells of a writer who moves into an isolated Norwegian lighthouse with only his dog and the intent to finish his novel.
Poe died three pages in. It isn’t actually even titled “The Light- house”; people starting calling it that afterwards. Some speculate that the story actually IS complete, and Poe intentionally ended it abruptly. You can read the full manuscript here.
The Eggers departed from “The Light- House” pretty quickly, but they infuse The Lighthouse with classic Poe elements: power struggles, foreboding animals, the supernatural, and descents into madness.
The entire film presents a power struggle between Tom and Ephraim. As one critic put it: “Willem Dafoe vs. Rob Pattinson. It’s that simple and that excellent.” Poe’s work thrived on power struggles. “The Fall Of The House Of Usher” presents a power struggle between a madman in a haunted house and his confused guest. In “The Cask of Amontillado”, a jilted nobleman gets his enemy drunk, chains him to a wall and buries him alive. Ephraim’s fanatic punishment of Tom harkens to Montresor’s defilement of Fortunato. Tom and Ephraim constantly get each other drunk. Ephraim ties up Tom like a dog and begins to bury him alive, but lust for the lighthouse distracts him.
Edgar Allen Poe loved using animals as omens. His most famous poem, “The Raven”, uses a haunting black bird to haunt the protagonist. “The Black Cat” tells of a man who tortures and abuses cats; the cats come back to wreck misfortune upon the man. The man in “The Black Cat” also murders his wife with an axe; that’s how Ephraim finally kills Tom.
The Lighthouse replaces black cats with seagulls. Tom warns Ephraim: “bad luck to kill a sea bird… in ‘em’s the souls o’ sailors what met their maker.” All hell breaks loose after Ephraim beats an irksome one- eyed gull to a bloody pulp. In the film’s last frame, greedy gulls peck at Ephraim’s half- dead flesh.
The supernatural reflects on The Lighthouse like fleeting facets of revolving light. Tom is obsessed with the lighthouse light. He says his last companion went mad because he believed in “some… enchantment in the light”. Clearly, the light has bewitching qualities: Tom worships it naked. In the penultimate scene, Ephraim finally reaches its twinkling chambers. The door opens by itself and distorts Ephraim before throwing him down a spiral staircase. Something is up with this lighthouse.
Ephraim is taunted by another supernatural being: a sexy siren. Robert Pattinson screws a mermaid. It’s awesome. But was it real? Ephraim believes Tom placed a mermaid trinket in his cot to summon the mermaid and keep him away from the lighthouse.
In Poe’s “Ligeia”, a narrator is haunted by two mistresses, one who replaces the other. Both lead the narrator to madness- or is it just a bad opium trip? Both the lighthouse and the mermaid objectify the men’s desires and seem interchangeable with with one another, like the wives in “Ligeia”.
Edgar Allen Poe pioneered the horror genre, and nearly all his stories include elements of the supernatural. Many also feature an unnamed narrator descending into madness. “The Tell- Tale Heart”, “The Cask of Amontillado”, “The Raven” and “The Black Cat” all feature narrators driven mad by isolation and past actions. That’s eventually what drives the characters in The Lighthouse mad. Well, that, a trippy light, a sea storm, and a lot of booze.
Max and Robert Eggers translated the best of Poe’s work into this intense, ravishing film. The Lighthouse includes more semen than an Edgar Allan Poe story, but I think Poe would be proud. Watch The Lighthouse when you want a movie to grab you by your balls and thrash you on the rocks. It’s excellent.