The Lighthouse is a Modern Masterpiece of Cosmic Horror
Movie: The Lighthouse (2019)
Director: Robert Eggers
It was about a year ago when I decided to log onto my Netflix and watch the 2015 film The Witch (aka The VVitch, if you want to get fancy). Despite the extremely slow pace and the incomprehensible dialogue from characters at times (mostly everything the father said), I was certainly more captivated and impressed than I expected. The world-building Eggers went through to make this story seem realistic was so outstanding, especially his use of incorporating New English dialect so seamlessly into the screenplay. Watching that movie made me experience a feeling of dread and escapism I had only felt before when watching Kubrick’s The Shining for the first time. I had never gotten a cinematic experience like that from a period piece before.
As the credits rolled, I realized that this was just the directorial debut from Robert Eggers. Ever since then, I kept him on my radar, waiting to see if A24 would post any trailers announcing any new films from the director. When The Lighthouse was finally released, it was met with an unprecedented level of praise, with critics calling it the best movie of the year. I couldn’t stop hearing good things about that movie. When I was FINALLY able to sit down and watch it in this quarantine crisis, I realized that I had just seen a movie that actually lived up to the hype surrounding it.
I don’t want to call this a perfect film, but I’d say it’s pretty darn close to one. All the qualities of The Witch that initially made it so special, Eggers takes and improves upon. Researching from actual diary entries from “wikkies” of the 1890s and early 1900s, Eggers uses dialect and slang real lighthouse keepers said to write those long, discombobulated, and insanity-ridden monologues performed by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. Both actors give hilarious, terrifying, and overall extraordinary performances. Robert Pattinson proves his acting capabilities once again, as he portrays a mysterious loner troubled with his past, and slowly going mad. As we find out more about his character, his acting gets more and more sporadic, uncontrollable, and unpredictable. Over the passage of time we see him turn from a quiet and polite recluse into a man gone absolutely haywire, fluctuating between a goofy and brutally honest drunk to a lost soul repenting for the sins he has committed to a miserable man with so much pent-up anger and sexual frustration that his breaking point is closer than any onlooker may think.
Willem Dafoe gives a (in my opinion) career-defining performance as a lighthouse keeper resembling Captain Ahab. I don’t think I’ve ever been more intrigued by a character in a film I’ve seen recently. His unpredictability kept me on the edge of my seat the entire time, wondering whether the next scene was going to be him dancing around the room singing sea shanties, or him exposing the moral flaws in his partner or himself, all while tending to his beloved lighthouse. Dafoe’s execution of his written monologues is one of the most amazing things I think I have ever seen in film. Just when you think he’s going to stop talking, he goes on and on and on, talking about humanity, morality, the sea, past, or his cooking. There were multiple moments where I just had the biggest smile on my face because his acting and character were so fantastically entertaining to watch. There were also multiple moments where I genuinely feared him. The sudden mood changes he had were unbelievable, and made me constantly question where the scene was going to go. As much as I love Brad Pitt, it was an absolute crime that Dafoe didn’t win or even be nominated for an Oscar for this movie.
The Lighthouse, while being a new story and one of the most unique movies I have ever seen, takes a lot of influences from prior works. The entirety of The Lighthouse is filmed in an aspect ratio of 1:19:1. Not only does this bring an even more claustrophobic sense to the film, but it is also reminiscent of German expressionist films of the early 1900s, such as Nosferatu, directed by F.W. Murnau. Eggers has stated his love of expressionistic films such as those directed by Murnau and Fritz Lang, and the aspect ratio being the same as those movies is most likely an homage to them. For the mermaid and sea creature with tentacles (whether they may or may not be real), Eggers obviously was inspired by the cryptozoology of sea creatures such as mermaids and the Loch Ness monster. Considering the cosmic horror aspects of The Lighthouse, Eggers seems to also take a lot of inspiration from the Lovecraftian horror of the short story “Dagon”. If you read just excerpts of the story written by H.P. Lovecraft, you can certainly see the resemblance between the two stories.
“I know not why my dreams were so wild that night; but ere the waning and fantastically gibbous moon had risen far above the eastern plain, I was awake in a cold perspiration, determined to sleep no more.”
“Vast, Polyphemus-like, and loathsome, it darted like a stupendous monster of nightmares to the monolith, about which it flung its gigantic scaly arms, the while it bowed its hideous head and gave vent to certain measured sounds. I think I went mad then.”
The most obvious influence of The Lighthouse is Greek and Roman mythology, most specifically the tales of Prometheus and Proteus. Now, Prometheus and Proteus never met in any mythological stories, but the influences seem to strong to ignore. Proteus was the “prophetic old man of the sea,” a deity of seas and oceans, who resided on the island of Pharos. Proteus was also a shepherd of the flocks of the sea. This would include animals such as seals and seagulls. If we compare the mythological figure of Proteus to Willem Dafoe’s character, Thomas Wake, we find quite a few similarities. Rambling speeches like both a prophet and crazy old man, considers himself to own the lighthouse and island, as well as his warning to protect his “flock of seagulls”, “Best y’leave ‘em be. Bad luck to kill a sea bird.”
The similarities between Thomas Howard, played by Robert Pattinson, and Prometheus are even more prominent. In fact, it makes The Lighthouse seem like a modern retelling of the classic myth of Prometheus. Prometheus was a Titan claimed with building humanity out of clay. Seeing the ignorance of the humans and wanting to give light to the world, he steals fire and gives it to humanity for them to make light, cook their food, warm them, etc. However, to do this, Prometheus betrays the gods, giving fire and knowledge to humans that the gods never intended for them to have. As a punishment, Prometheus is tied to a rock by Zeus, and every single day an eagle would come and peck out his liver. Every single night, his liver would grow back only to be eaten again the next day, bringing on a brutal, never-ending cycle of torture. If we apply this story to the case of Thomas Howard, the similarities are uncanny. Howard has always been curious about what secrets the top of the lighthouse hold, but Wake won’t let him in. Howard, once he snaps, murders Wake in cold blood and goes up to the top of the lighthouse, “stealing the light.” Once Howard sees what horror or grandeur the apex of the lighthouse holds, he subsequently falls down the entire lighthouse, to his assumed death. The next shot we see is a zoom out of his naked, bloodied body with seagulls pecking his organs out of a hole in his stomach. Howard seems to still be awake when this happens, reminiscent of Prometheus, an immortal getting tortured who cannot die, no matter how hard he wishes.
Speaking of that ending, the ending is perhaps the best part of this film. Eggers leaves the audience off with a 21th century version of the briefcase from Pulp Fiction. It leaves us asking “What did he see in that light?” All we see is Thomas Howard, with a look of amazement and then extreme terror, his smile and chuckle turning into his distorted frenzy of screaming. Eggers leaves it up to the interpretation of the audience what exactly Thomas sees before falling down the lighthouse to his death. Is it something he sees due to his insanity? Is it a reveal that Thomas is living in his own personal hell or purgatory? Is it something so magnificent that human eyes can’t contain the power it holds, reminiscent of the Ark of the Covenant? Or is it absolutely nothing, which makes Thomas realize there was no supposed “light at the end of the tunnel?” The ambiguous nature of this ending leaves the audience wondering what exactly they just witnessed and allows many interpretations of the film. If a film has such a profound effect on you that you can’t stop thinking about the meanings and subtexts behind it for days after viewing it, I believe that’s what makes a truly great film. The Lighthouse certainly did that for me, and it seems to have affected many other people the same way.
As a high school student trapped in my house with my family during this quarantine, it was more than a perfect time to watch The Lighthouse. Forced to be isolated from the rest of the world, only with a few people to keep me company, it feels like I’m on my own rocky island sometimes. Thomas Wake puts it best when he loses all sense of time, “How long have we been on this rock? Five weeks? Two days? Where are we?” If anything, The Lighthouse made me come to terms with this whole situation a little bit better. No matter how bad things may seem, this period of isolation will never get as bad as it did for wikkies Thomas Howard and Thomas Wake.