The Lighthouse – What if Moby-Dick was kind of messed up?
My reaction immediately after seeing Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse was that I’d undeniably had a fascinating audiovisual experience. This cool intellectual stimulation atrophied, however, into something like the feeling of wrapping your head around the instructions for a piece of Ikea furniture. I’m very satisfied, but it’s still the cinematic equivalent of a very chic bookshelf.
Which may seem a little odd! There’s a lot about this film to praise. The Lighthouse tells the story of two men, played remarkably by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, working as lighthouse keepers on a remote island. The film’s structure is tidy: it begins the day the two are left on the island to begin their duties, things are normal but ghostly for a while, and then the odd stuff comes in waves, all while weaving in some moments of legitimate humor. And The Lighthouse is always interesting to look at. Its cramped, damp rooms and desolate shores are heightened by a square aspect ratio lifted from silent films. The anxious mysticism looming over everything is brought into further relief by the film’s cinematography, which leans towards the dark end of black-and-white shooting. Finally, special commendation must go to its use of sound. I’ve seen very few films that so effectively intermingle industrial and natural noise into such a thoroughly disturbing soundscape.
So, yes, there’s a lot about this movie that qualifies it as something special. But then Robert Pattinson scornfully accuses Willem Dafoe of putting on a “Captain Ahab act,” and that’s when the curtain fell for me. This is a ‘literary’ movie drawing mainly on the cultural memory of Moby-Dick and “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and on the renewed popularity of Lovecraftian elements in the last ten years. But it overplays its hand. Thematically it’s about as subtle as an axe to the face without ever actually committing to a set of ideas. It gestures towards themes of divinity, nature, desire, fatherhood, guilt, physical and mental fragility, and homoeroticism, but it never lands anywhere at all with these. I think a sufficiently rich movie isn’t obliged to settle every thematic score, but I do want to have a sense of a worldview. The Lighthouse obscures itself to its own detriment, confusing loaded symbolism for meaningful symbolism.
Truly, there’s a lot to love about this movie, but taken as a whole The Lighthouse leaves me feeling sort of hollow. I want to emphasize that this is absolutely a movie worth seeing. It is original, it is affecting, and it is an arty romp. Its sounds and images are powerful and exciting. And to its greatest credit, it’s a movie that’s fun to talk about. If you like what’s been happening in the world of “popular art films” the last few years, go see The Lighthouse. But, it had a short half-life for me. Full of sound and fury, signifying something, The Lighthouse is the definition of a “must-see C+” movie.