by Samuel Heaton
"As it stands, The Lighthouse is a film perhaps more interesting to discuss than it is to actually watch."
Shot in black and white using 35mm film and a boxy 1:19 ratio, Robert Eggers’ latest film, The Lighthouse, focuses on Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) who works as a young apprentice to mad old seadog - and lighthouse keeper - Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe).
Upon arrival, Winslow is made to do the dirty jobs by Wake while he gets to man the light in the lighthouse. Wake constantly berates him, warning him of folklore and the danger of killing seagulls. When a storm attacks the island, they are stranded without food or rescue - and tensions start to build. Winslow is increasingly haunted by visions of mermaids, tentacles and seagulls. Wake is by turns charming and violent; relaxed and up tight. The men bicker, fight, fart and flirt relentlessly; occasionally the increasingly drunken debauchery does risk dragging on too long and becoming repetitive.
The film alludes to Winslow’s guilt; the homoeroticism of male friendships, internalised homophobia and toxic masculinity without spelling out these themes too heavily. Allusions to Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the myth of Prometheus, who was punished for stealing fire from the gods, enrich the story telling. Eggers deserves heaps of praise for the confidence with which he presents intriguing questions, without feeling the need to offer concrete answers. I wish the filmmakers were more willing to embrace the terror at the heart of the narrative: as it stands, The Lighthouse is a film perhaps more interesting to discuss than it is to actually watch.
On February 1st 2020 Britain had officially left the European Union. I saw The Lighthouse that day, and it became almost impossible for me to interpret the ambiguities of the film from any viewpoint other than a political one.
Horror films have always reflected the cultural fears of the era. In Chavs, Owen Jones sees the 2008 film Eden Lake as symptomatic of right-wing paranoia about a 'criminalised underclass'. In contrast, The Lighthouse can be interpreted as reflecting liberal fears about the rise of nationalism and isolationism.
Still: The Lighthouse (2020) (Credit: A24)
What is the role of outside voices in this political struggle? They are silenced.
What is the role of women? They are seen as something to be feared and objectified.
What makes The Lighthouse interesting is that it turns the trope of fearing the outsider on its head. With the absence of outsiders, the characters' distrust turns inward. The island in The Lighthouse can be seen as a vision of Brexit Britain in miniature - their faith that they can survive without outside influence slowly wanes and chaos starts to set in.
Of course, not even the most ardent Remainer truly believes Brexit will result in Britons having to make their own alcohol out of honey and turps. But in their petty arguing and self destructive behaviours, the two lighthouse keepers can be seen as allegories for our political leaders. Ephraim Winslow and Thomas Wake scheme against each other and lie brazenly to gain control of an external power that they cannot explain or handle.
These violent tendencies take on a tragicomic significance when the audience realise they are the main obstacles to the characters' survival and escape. The claustrophobia, which is emphasized by the stylish cinematography, accentuates the characters' worst traits and their willingness to resort to dirty tactics.
Our Greatest Fear
The Lighthouse gains its sense of terror not because Pattinson and Dafoe's characters are trapped on an island. It is because we are trapped there with them.
Films like The Lighthouse, as well as Jordan Peele’s Us (2019) and Get Out (2017) are horror at its best – subverting the ‘fear of outsiders’ rather than exploiting it. In a genre that can be used to perpetuate distrust within our communities, and in our increasingly xenophobic political environment, it is more important than ever to scrutinize the ideologies that lurk beneath the latest blockbusters.
The Lighthouse stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe and was released on 31 January 2020