The Lighthouse is, in some ways, the last film we need right now. A male-centric chamber piece, Robert Eggers’s latest revels in the grotesqueries of guydom: farts, hooch, and fisticuffs all make repeated appearances throughout. The film is even shot in such a way as to signal masculinity, with its sturdy, 4:3 aspect ratio, its frequent close-ups on mustaches and beards, and its favoring of the dramatic low angles pioneered by Orson Welles in his own emphatic presentation of a blowhard newspaper man. The Lighthouse’s sound design is built around the ceaseless groans and swells of dissonant bass horns, and is supplemented by the hyper-literate and historically masculine seaman patois chewed on by Willem Dafoe’s character. Thematically, this is all comfortably in Jack London and Joseph Conrad territory, relishing the man-versus-nature/man-versus-himself dichotomy present in those writers’ texts. But Eggers is up to far more here — or less, depending on your appreciation for the blunt-force artistry on display.
While this film does function as something of a gonzo takedown of the XY id, there’s also plenty of opportunity to unpack the symbols and the power dynamics on display. Eggers doubles down on his saturating affects by employing the provocative-imagery-by-way-of-dream trick, but this is new weird genre territory, and the filmmaker has intentionally crafted a maximalist sensory experience. He refashions Universal horror film vibes with something of a Guy Maddin influence, and blankets the proceedings not only with a commitment to scatological humor, but also a pervasive claustrophobia. The camera never strays far from its subjects, utilizing the close quarters and verticality of the interiors to keep tensions high — while also brilliantly emphasizing the expansiveness of the ocean, which becomes a surprisingly analogous symbol of entrapment. The would-be comforts of a meal are rife with palpable unease and tainted water; a night’s sleep is interrupted by creature dreams; and the outdoors are home to accursed gulls. This overall, and specific, ostentatiousness will be a roadblock for many. But Eggers doesn’t mind his film being the province of only those who can tune into its particular shanty horror wavelength.
Published as part of October 2019’s Before We Vanish.