Michael Movie Moments

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

If you think your isolation experience has been bad, you might want to consider watching The Lighthouse. It is hard for me to imagine a situation as trying or as frightening as what these two men experience. Based on a true story, in the 1890s - of two men trapped for more than a month on a small desolate island off of New England, manning a lighthouse through a series of terrible Nor’easters - this movie paints a tale of desperation as they try and then fail to maintain their sanity. Let me start with the technical aspects before I get back to the story itself.

First, this is a black-and-white movie. There is a quality in black and white films that focuses the viewer on the faces of people and the surfaces of objects. When colors disappear, the mind pays more attention to the qualities of background and foreground and textures. In this case, the choice of black and white film was augmented by using a cyan filter which makes reds appear very dark. The effect on a human face is to emphasize pores and beard stubble exaggerating the coarseness of the two male subjects. Add to that an unusual choice of framing - a nearly square presentation - evoking the silent black and white films of the early 20th century. The squared aspect ratio contributes a sense of claustrophobia and helps create the feeling that the viewer is right there in the lighthouse with these characters.

The movie was filmed on an island off of Nova Scotia and the lighthouse itself was a constructed set. What was not artificial, though, were the storms that ravaged the cast and crew. The actors noted this was some of the toughest filming they have ever endured - many of the outdoor scenes were filmed in raging wind and rain, the kind of storm that makes the North Atlantic fearsome. And the requisite foghorn makes an ominous sound, coupled with a terrific score designed to produce a mysterious mood.

I called 1917 a ‘technical marvel’, and indeed it was. But, on a fraction of the budget, The Lighthouse is nearly as good. The visual and auditory movie crafts are simply outstanding. Where the movie may fail, for many, is in the story. This isn’t a story for the faint of heart. It is classified in the ‘Horror’ genre, and there is definitely the requisite blood and gore to make it fit there. (Remember, though, that the blood is not red, so ... What may surprise some people is the sexual component. There is a woman, well sort of a woman, who appears briefly (or does she) and she definitely serves a sexual function. But most of the sex is of the auto-kind. Realistically, what can you expect when two men are trapped for five weeks straight in a building that - well let’s face it, a lighthouse has a definite shape. What happens to the male mind when constrained physically, emotionally, and spiritually without relief of any kind for a long time?

The two men are played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Except for extremely brief appearances at the very beginning, those are the only two characters in the movie. Pattinson is a young actor perhaps best known for the Twilight movies. He does yeoman’s work here in the role of Winslow that, even he reported, was among the most challenging of his career.  Dafoe, on the other hand, plays Thomas Wake, the grizzled old seaman who has served at this lighthouse before and jealously guards its secrets. I didn’t like Dafoe in The Florida Project, but I thought his performance here is deserving of an Oscar. The obvious difference between these characters, and one critical to the story is their ages - one is a young man, trying to establish himself, the other an old geezer who is about spent, and knows it.

The last ten minutes of the movie will confound most viewers - well at least it did me. I did not fully understand the story director Robert Eggers was trying to tell, until the very last scene which only lasts a few seconds.  Essentially, the movie is a new take on an old tale from Greek mythology.  There are clues along the way, especially in a terrific soliloquy from Dafoe where he pronounces a sea curse on the younger man, ostensibly because the younger man didn’t like his cooking. Hidden in that speech, behind oozing drama, are the motivations for the movie.  And they follow the story of Proteus and Prometheus. I’m not going to spoil the movie by going into this mythology more - I suspect it will make sense for you by the end, at least I hope it does.  (I almost wonder if the very last scene should have been the opening scene!)

In the end, this is a story about aging masculinity and the challenges that young men present to older men. The sexual references are important because, as any man can tell you, sex is important to being a male. It is one of the things they fear losing. The movie is strange and, for sure, not everyone is going to like it.

But there is some excellent work from two male actors and a whole crew of talented technicians. I’m going out on a limb here and giving this movie 4.5 stars.