The Lighthouse - LFF 2019
Directed by Robert Eggers
“Why’d ya spill yer beans?!”
I’ll try to here. But how to even begin encapsulating two of the most barn-stormingly insane hours you could spend in a cinema? At its core this is the tale of two men, pushed to the limit in an extreme and hostile environment at world’s end. Slowly their descent into chaos unfurls before our eyes. But to summarise it in such a way trivialises the anarchy of the sounds, the smells (yes!), the sights and the experience. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe give career best performances as the two sea-salt dried lighthouse keepers whose only hope is to weather the never-ending storm. I clung on for dear life through the Lynch-like surrealism and was rewarded mightily for it. This is easily the film to beat at this year’s London Film Festival!
Coming into this, I was not a fan of Robert Eggers previous outing The Witch. It was a story with potential but it ended up being far too fanciful and ridiculous for my liking, completely inconsistent with the promising premise it had set up. No danger of that here! The Lighthouse immerses you in its nightmarish dreamscape from it’s very wet and windswept opening. The wind sends the waves crashing against the rocky outlet they occupy. All the while their mask of sanity slips ever further into the depths of Davey Jones locker. It’s myth-like storytelling plays out like a 19th century ghost story whispered between sailors over their fifth bottle of rum. The more alcohol consumed the more ridiculous and unbearable the story threatens to become.
Yet this story doesn’t so much threaten, it attacks! It thrusts and parries from unexpectedly ominous directions. The Hans Zimmer-like persistent blare of the foghorn. The loud and echoey expressive flatulence. The oppressive and monochrome tight aspect ratio. The pipes clenched between rotten baked-bean teeth. The facial hair. The gulls! But most of all, from Dafoe’s barely intelligible shanty-style dialogue which looms large over the whole affair like some monstrous narrator. This is where the Eggers Brothers show they mean business. This is probably the greatest screenplay of 2019. I’d love to get my hands on a copy as the dialogue is so lyrically poetic whilst simultaneously grounded in a grim reality. The exchanges between the two men are barbed one minute, sweet the next. Think Withnail & I but on an island.
Dafoe and Pattinson amplify every sentence, every look and every scene they share together. Supposedly the two actors barely spent any time with each other than when they were rehearsing and filming. It’s not surprising given the conditions they were forced to endure on set. The shivering, cold, misery is felt in every frame. Their acting methods are also very different. Theatrically-trained Dafoe preferring to rehearse as much as possible and Pattinson not wanting to overcook the bird. This polarising nature is reflected in the performance and absolutely will have helped drive the wedge deeper between their fictional counterparts. This leads onto a further point about the nature of duality, opposites and reflections which for me runs through the entire backbone of the piece.
The duality is oppressive in how obliquely it wants us to make sense of its central riddle. We are introduced to the two men as they replace two other men at The Lighthouse. The two men are young and old, boss and employee, cruel and guileless. They at once are nameless, then named, then named similarly. They couldn’t be more at odds, yet they dance and embrace together, alone in this far flung corner of the world. They are at different stages of their lives, yet they could be the same man separated by several decades. Their wants, their desires, their drives and their secrets could be wildly different but it seems they might just be identical. It’s not just the men. Pattinson goes head-to-head with a seagull, Dafoe’s cragged wickie ruefully warns him not to as they hold the souls of dead sailors. Pattinson finds, then secrets away a small carving of a mermaid. As he lustfully masturbates over the idol it manifests itself in fantastically portent ways, that may even go so far as to suggest a connection closer to home. Everything is something else.
Secrets and sex are just as prominent in the undertow of this film. There’s a ragingly loud mess of noise on top but it’s what lies beneath that’ll swallow you whole. The restrained homo-eroticism at play feels natural as the two men share a tale or two of past deceptions and regrets. The fact that they both take themselves off to shameful, secretive places, be it a store room or the lantern of the lighthouse to fulfil their desires, suggests they both feel something they can’t share with the other. When things are finally shared it causes the most volatile and catastrophic series of events to take place, resulting in the now infamous refrain of “why’d ya spill yer beans?”. When tentacles and slime appear it’s not so much a literal interpretation of their sex as it is a full-blown Freudian analysis.
The Lighthouse will stay with you. It’s certainly stayed with me and I can’t think of a film from recent time that has remained in my thoughts quite as much as this. To call it a masterpiece at this stage might be too frugal a description for something that actually is far more nuanced than that. It’s a beautiful depiction of something bizarre and chaotic. It feels like some awful treasure that’s been hoisted out of the depths and found in a cage along with lobsters, barnacles and seaweed. The incredible imagery will stay with you, burnt into your retina so deeply you may never recover from it. The taste of the sea salt and the filth will fill your mouth for days to come, choking you as you try to find the words to explain what you’ve just experienced. By the time the credits roll you’ll feel picked apart by the birds. But don’t worry. It’s just a film, just some silly superstitious tale sailors used to tell themselves to keep warm over a bottle and some tobacco. It’s just a tall tale. Or is it?
Why’d ya spill yer beans?