‘The Lighthouse’ Review: Casting Its Beam on Empty Places

“What?” Robert Pattinson’s listless Ephraim Winslow asks Willem Dafoe’s weather-beaten Tom Wake, his tone weary. “What?” Wake grunts in kind. The two men repeat the question with mounting frustration until they’re shouting over one another, faces inches apart, veins pulsing in their necks and at their temples. Like much of The Lighthouse, the second film from The Witch director Robert Eggers, the scene is concerned with the unknown as it is embodied in ourselves and those around us. With their bleakly comic shouting match Winslow and Wake are fighting, and failing, to know each other.

Shot with beautifully lit precision on 32mm black and white film, The Lighthouse is a story about the things men are missing and the broken, sometimes frightening ways they try to circumvent the holes in their hearts and personalities. Its protagonists circle each other both literally and figuratively as, forced together by their isolated post at the titular installation, they attempt to find some kind of human purchase in their shared solitude. Wake’s seniority separates them, as does Winslow’s reticence, and even when the two men come closer it’s through drinking to excess to dull their inhibitions, not through genuine emotional openness. 

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Holes in the World

The Lighthouse spends a great deal of time probing at sexuality. In one scene Winslow, removing leaky shingles from the house’s roof, glimpses Wake’s bare ass through the flap of his union suit. The moment is unmistakably erotic, the cleft of Dafoe’s cheeks lit as carefully here as his driftwood face is later when he places a curse on Winslow with Biblical drunken rage, invoking Neptune to drown and impale the younger man as the light travels over his face and transforms him from aggrieved old man to boiling human thunderhead. Multiple scenes depict the men masturbating in private, an unusual inclusion for such a high-profile film.

The film’s more conventional sexual icon — a siren Winslow encounters in his dreams and on the beach — is only nebulously real, as much a symbol of the terrifying feminine as she is of lust. More than once Winslow uses her image as a kind of talisman to hold images of other men at bay as he touches himself, or when during a fight he straddles Wake. Even there she proves cold comfort, her body profoundly alien and frightening.

The film’s use of prosthetics and puppetry on her tail with its billowing betta-fish fin and on the floral bloom of her vulva is seamlessly unsettling, the siren’s biology conjured out of thin air and into solid flesh. The tense sensuality of the scene in which Winslow, believing her to be a dead woman tangled in seaweed, runs his hands over her body is like something out of Michael Mann’s Manhunter, the frisson of erotic thrill and the hot, panicky tension of mortal danger holding the moment between their paired jaws.

Light and Thunder

The light itself is the epicenter of the film’s focus on revolution, in the sense of orbital movement, and repetition. Its lenses click and slither, glass turning within glass, just as the film begins with the rhythmic thump, thump, thump of a boat’s keel against stiff chop, just as so much of its running time is taken up by Winslow’s daily labors.

Coal shoveled into the beacon house’s furnace. Nails pounded home. The basso drone of the light’s signal horn rolls at intervals over the rest of the film’s intricate soundscape. When an interruption comes it jars like a clock skipping an hour, light and violence skewering the eye. The Lighthouse is luminous and entrancing, its leads astounding, its effects breathtaking in both simplicity and spectacle. 

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