You know, it’s surprisingly hard to make a film that doesn’t offer any answers.
Well, okay, let me be a little more clear: it’s surprisingly hard to make a film that doesn’t offer definitive answers to the questions it poses and have your audience walk out after seeing it totally satisfied.
Because that’s how I felt walking out of David Egger’s critically-acclaimed The Lighthouse; a follow-up to The VVitch, his nightmare vision of New England puberty that hailed in a new era for prestige horror, it’s hardly a surprise that The Lighthouse is a movie that works.
Following the story of two New England lighthouse keepers (Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson) stranded at their remote post after a fierce storm leaves them with nowhere else to go, The Lighthouse is a story that offers very little in the way of, well, actual story – it’s a deep-sea-dive into madness, mermaids, mistrust, and masturbation, shot in classic black-and-white style; every other scene elicits a “well, that took a turn”, and at any given point it would be utterly within the run of play for our two leads to either shag each other or shank each other. An exhausting watch, it mostly unfolds via heavily-accented dialogue, wind, rain, and oblique mythological references. It’s the sort of film, in other words, that could so easily be an utterly infuriating and truly pompous pile of bilge-water in the wrong hands.
But David Eggers (along with brother and co-writer Max Eggers) just so happens to be the right ones. When you throw out a film like this, so heavily stylised and so firm in its refusal to offer concrete answers or even a trustworthy narrative, you have to get everything else utterly right to make it watchable. First off, Eggers knows how to direct a movie – when you go for something with such a distinct and unique look, you have to believe that it’s serving to engage the audience and not alienate them – despite the old-fashioned nature of the monochrome style, the visual storytelling is distinctly modern, with striking blocking and a handsome use of shadow and light that gives it a hypnotic edge. And that casting is perfect – Defoe (though he doesn’t come close to his truly iconic turn in Streets of Fire as Raven Shaddock, the most nippley biker gang leader you’ve ever seen) and Pattinson are almost impossibly watchable together, lighting up the screen with their pitch-perfect chemistry and total commitment to the ridiculous intensity of these performances.
And make no mistake, Eggers embraces that ridiculousness full-on: though this is a horror, that doesn’t mean that Eggers isn’t aware of how inherently silly some of this stuff is. A sly sense of humour lifts The Lighthouse out of being a completely gruelling affair, finding the petty nonsense that pushes these men into total insanity as funny as it actually is to an outsider.
I was a little unfair, too, in saying that The Lighthouse doesn’t mean anything, because it clearly and obviously does. A dense meta-textual analysis of the mythological symbolism and the unreliable narration have something solid in there, but it’s not something that offers itself up easily. But, instead of seeming inpenetrable, with a skilled director and great performances, The Lighthouse invites you to look a little closer and find out what it has going on beneath the surface. Even though the film is in no hurry to tell you exactly what’s going on here, it’s intriguing enough, beautiful enough, and witty enough to keep you coming back for more until you figure out just what it seems so keen to keep under wraps. And to leave you walking out of the cinema feeling satisfied.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via ImDB)