Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Robert Eggers’ madcap new film The Lighthouse opens in Seattle this weekend. It is a trip.
Eggers made The Witch, a 2015 slice of folk-horror that had some absolutely terrific scare-beats in it—and one tremendous satanic goat. I liked the film and what it was doing, even though I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that in its calculated style it was perhaps just a little too cool for its own good—slightly over-cooked, or at least over-designed, or something.
The Lighthouse is similarly designed. But this time the film feels more unhinged, more original (even as it borrows a great deal of its dialogue from pre-existing sources, apparently including Herman Melville). The setting is a lighthouse on a barren piece of rock, a good haul away from mainland. Robert Pattinson plays a relative newcomer to the business of lighthouse-keeping, and Willem Dafoe is his crusty mentor. Both actors look fantastic; their faces are a large part of the film’s experience, like scrimshaw carvings of hooded eyes and hollowed cheeks. Cooped up together for a period of time that begins to be surreally elongated, they go loudly insane.
Yes, loudly. This is a film of torrents, howling wind from the sky and heavy swells from the sea; and the carping of seagulls (nasty creatures those, full of portents and evil, E.A. Poe-like in their tapping against old windows); and the yammering of the two men as they vomit out gobs of salted curses from some long tradition of maritime lore. Their actual vomiting is also loud, and so are the other bodily functions, detailed exactingly. All of it is funneled through a narrow Academy ratio-shaped screen, and in black and white.
The film is absolutely too long, yet without its length it might not get to its depth of derangement; you need to feel lost in this thing, without your bearings. What exactly is our location, anyway? It is not down on any map; true places never are. (That’s a Melville quote.) In what year does it take place? 1931? 1972? I haven’t a clue. How long is its running time? Too long, but just right. How crazy is its final sequence? Very, but why not? How else are you going to end this movie?
The Lighthouse is the collision of Eugene O’Neill and H.P. Lovecraft, which is a very drunken, slithery collision. But it is also about cinema, for there is the giant lamp at the top of the lighthouse, which Dafoe’s one-legged mariner keeps for his own pleasure, barring Pattinson from its eye-filling light. Dafoe gets some kind of transcendence, or at least sex, from his contact with the light, just what we seek with movies. We never quite see entirely what’s going on up there, just that the light itself is overwhelming.
A very knowing film—as with The Witch, maybe too knowing. It tired me out at times. But it has a strong afterlife in the mind, like a briny shanty recalled at night.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.