Directed by Robert Eggers
Starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson
I always feel a bit of pressure to give a film like THE LIGHTHOUSE a better rating. No, not because I once planned to write a book (or maybe I did …?) way back in the MV1 days called THE LIGHTHOUSE, but because we need more films like this, more films that want to be something different on both a visual and narrative level. I want to love this film, but I don’t. I respect it, but I don’t love it.
The performances are excellent. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson act the shit out of these parts. Given that they are just about the only two people in the film, this is important. Wake (Dafoe) is a lighthouse keeper and Winslow (Pattinson) is the new man on the island. There’s not a lot of talking, at first, and then Wake launches into monologue after monologue and Winslow masturbates and masturbates. These two things don’t necessarily happen at the same time. Wake’s character slowly becomes friendlier to Winslow and Winslow slowly becomes mentally unhinged, though Wake has lines he doesn’t want Winslow to cross: he doesn’t want Winslow up in the top of the lighthouse and he doesn’t want any confessions of past behavior. When Winslow crosses this line, he’s back in Wake’s shithouse.
THE LIGHTHOUSE also blends in a bunch of sea myths — mermaids and seagull superstitions and giant tentacles — and it’s this part of the movie that works better for me. I wish we had gotten more of this. Frankly, the one-eyed seagull is the most interesting character in the film, and the use of the mermaid is all kinds of toxic masculinity: she’s not a character, she’s an object of sexual fantasy and revulsion. The mermaid fills three functions: she exists in scrimshaw form that is the subject of Winslow’s masturbation fantasies, she exists as an actual living mermaid that he gropes out on the rocks because he thinks she’s dead, and she has a giant vagina that terrifies him. American woman, take me a-waay-ay …
The oceanic myths give the film something beyond the two great performances to dig into and explore and I was more interested in seeing the myths explored but the film was more interested in being a psychological treatise. And hey, that’s cool, but it’s just less interesting to me.
Two dudes trapped for weeks or months on an island, one of them already completely troubled and the other on his way, is the obvious plot and they don’t do a whole lot with it to make it interesting or unique. I almost don’t mind because the performances are so good, but once the alcohol starts crashing into and through the men like the storm that’s raging outside, the film loses something for me. Once Winslow starts drinking alongside Wake, the narrative disintegrates into watching two jerks be jerks. I don’t need to have sympathy for a character but I do need to find them interesting, and the more I get to know Wake and Winslow, the less interesting they become. They’re little boys in men’s bodies. Winslow has a whole backstory about running away, of course (one more oceanic trope to bring in), but it actually makes him less interesting.
Wake and Winslow are solitary men dealing with loneliness and lashing out at the idea of having feelings (some of them homoerotic feelings) and this is what lonely men lashing out at the idea of having feelings (some of them homoerotic feelings) did before you could buy AR-15s and rocket launchers and strap them on for a friendly visit to Subway and a not-so-friendly visit to your local state capitol.
I hate saying anything bad about a film like THE LIGHTHOUSE. It’s a good movie. It’s a film I’d recommend people watch, and it’s a film I’d teach if I ever get to teach a film class, again. But I’ve taught V FOR VENDETTA a bunch, too, and that’s another film that I wish I liked more than I do.
At the end of the day, however, while I only liked instead of loved this movie, we need more films like THE LIGHTHOUSE, not less.