The Lighthouse stinks.
The briny salt of the ocean mixed with piss and shit and jizz and mud and rotting sea-bird corpses and farts. The titular lighthouse emits such a putrid stench you can almost taste it. When Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow declares that his fellow lighthouse keeper aka “Wickie” (Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake) smells like “curdled foreskin”, it’s easy to agree. Like, “yah Ephraim, you’re right! And he looks like it, too!”
The premise of The Lighthouse is simple: two lighthouse keepers live isolated on a very small island off the New England coast in the 1890s. Two men alone in a small, ramshackle house on an island: sanities are sure to be lost.
Robert Eggers’ (The Witch ) latest film is grizzled and tactile. It’s filmed with vintage lenses and in high contrast black and white (with Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography), and although the effect is of a vintage photograph, the film’s rich, rough texture (the house creaks, piss runs, and the whole place is surrounded by wooden beams, broken shingles, and chipped cups) feels like if you reach out, you’ll be able to feel Dafoe’s rough, wrinkled face and wiry beard.
At one point, Pattinson’s Ephraim is on the roof of the shack they share, repairing a broken shingle. From his vantage point high above, he peers through the hole in the roof and spies Thomas softly grinding into the mattress as he sleeps, the camera sharing this visual through a point of view shot. With the square 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the film is intimate, like we too are peeping through a square hole in the roof. Hence the stench.
There is a reason that seamen and semen sound the same.
In the very opening scene, as the two cross the ocean to their new dwelling, bodies shrouded in black coats, they sway in unison from side to side, hinting at some form of connection. In truth, they are often at odds with each other. Actually, they are always at odds with each other. When you are stuck on a very small outcropping of rock and one man won’t quit hogging the effervescent glowing orb, tensions are sure to rise.
Beyond the phallic imagery of the lighthouse itself, across the weeks Ephraim and Thomas spend together, Eggers builds a psycho-sexual tension.
Thomas gets off from whatever is happening within the bulb of the tip of the lighthouse (the curved embellishment on the outside of the globes looks somewhat vaginal). Ephraim gets freaked out by and yet seeks gratification from a mermaid (both real — maybe — and porcelain).
Thomas holds some sort of control over the younger wickie. When they first arrive at the lighthouse, he immediately asserts dominance with a casual display of flatulence (not kidding), and later on, while ordering him about, he demands of Ephraim, “you’ll like it because I says you will.” Thomas is in control and Ephraim submits.
Tension builds as Ephraim carries out gruelling and physically demanding tasks with little help nor praise from Thomas. Eventually, with Ephraim sick of Thomas’ shit, and Thomas offended Ephraim doesn’t like his cooking, they fight like an old, dysfunctional married couple (afterwards, Ephraim gets down on his knees and begs for forgiveness).
The pair both get drunk in order to deal with being so close to one another. Griping bottles as if they represent their manhood, the two form a relationship that becomes more intimate in these drunken stupors: after the trauma of Ephraim having sex with a mermaid, the two men dance together, bodies pressed closely.
This phallic and queer interpretation can be attributed to my film studies degree, but to be fair, it’s not that hard to find: while giving the side of the lighthouse a fresh coat of white paint, Thomas controls the rope holding Ephraim up. After a little jerking around to demonstrate his control over his young counterpart, he lets the rope drop, letting Ephraim fall onto the ground. The effect is Ephraim lying on the ground, groaning, covered with the spilt paint — splatters of white over his body and face 👀
No man is an island, until the island consumes him.
The Lighthouse is a film about two men alone and going mad. With a mixture of isolation and repression, unable to deal with their emotions (frustration, loneliness, feeling imposed upon), they both lash out violently. The entire time I watched the film it was Barbara Kruger’s words which sprang to mind: “you construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men.”
It’s a tale as old as time when it comes to men and anger, but Eggers keeps it interesting with the film’s unsettling atmosphere. A fog horn blows intermittently throughout the film, reminiscent of the barge noise made popular in the trailer for Inception (2010), almost like a countdown to the film’s sinister end. Mark Korven’s score draws out deep, long rumbling notes that feel like the cross between a wail and a buzzing. It’s eerie. What lurks on this island, in the ocean, in these men?
Oh, the sea be a cruel mistress, and Eggers gives us a glimpse of maritime horrors (some tentacles, a kraken, the mermaid, a vengeful sea-bird), but only a glimpse, to keep you guessing. Perhaps Thomas is an ancient sea monster. Maybe Thomas, or the mermaid, don’t exist at all. The film is weird, and the horror lies in its surrealism. Thanks to a storm, Ephraim is stuck on the island longer than originally planned. Hope for freedom and autonomy vanish with the rain. The longer he stays, the more his mind deteriorates, and the more he sinks to the bottom of a bottle of liquor, the more surreal the film gets. The island gets to him.
Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson both provide excellent performances. Opposites in many ways — with Pattinson young, lean and eager to experiment, and Dafoe shorter, older, and happy in a monologue — their chemistry feeds off each other. The more elusive and dominant Thomas gets, the more desperate Ephraim is.
‘Feed’ is a good word to use not only in regard to Pattinson and Dafoe’s chemistry. The lighthouse eats away at Ephraim’s sanity. Blood, mud, shit, and jizz seem to ooze out of and eat at his body. Fear and insanity spreads, like the score’s long barge-like notes. Is it Ephraim’s mind? Is it Thomas himself? Or is it the island, demonic in its own right?
Two men are alone on an island, going insane, but in the end, it’s Ephraim’s story. As we wonder what lurks within Ephraim and his past, he struggles to gain purchase and carve a space for himself, because he can’t escape Thomas’ grasp or control. Instead of a solitary, immovable island he goes deranged as fear consumes him. And in the end, something else from the island consumes him too.
The Lighthouse is now showing in Australian cinemas.
Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen screen tragic from Melbourne, Australia. She recently completed an Honours thesis in Screen Studies and has written for Junkee, 4:3, The Big Issue, Screen Queens and more. Follow her at @teencineteq and @theclairencew.