I was lucky enough to view ‘The Lighthouse’ at the Music Box Theater here in Chicago. If you have been, then you know it is an experience in itself. The theater with its atmospheric design, originally opened in 1929. The Music Box also added a theatre organ that plays during intermissions on the weekend, silent films or holiday sing alongs. All of this played into the ambiance of a ride I was not entirely prepared for. The red velvet curtains opened revealing the entire screen as the previews played. Then, everything went dark, and the drapes closed to form a smaller square box screen and I felt my body float and become one with the movie.
The Lighthouse was written by brothers, Robert and Max Eggers. Directed by Robert Eggers of ‘The Witch’. Before we even meet our actors, cinematographer and sound department grab you by the throat and do not let go. The loud foghorn echoes throughout the movie leading to your own torment. Willem Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, a former seaman who becomes a wickie after injuring his leg and is the main lighthouse keeper. A younger, inexperienced, Ephraim Winslow aka Tom (Robert Pattison) is his assistant. What was supposed to be four weeks on a remote New England island in the 1890’s turns into a lapse of time and reality in isolation.
The Lighthouse is full of mystery, seafaring superstitions and symbolism. The time period accurate dialect takes a little getting used to but only enhances the authenticity. The two men arrive on the island replacing two other light keepers. Thomas is a grizzly, flatulating, sea fearing man who has dedicated his life to seclusion. While Winslow, initially subservient and not accepting of silly superstitions descends into hallucinations and madness. Having more experience, Thomas takes the nightshift which allows him to take care of the light that he keeps under lock and key. Winslow is assigned the day shift consisting of menial back breaking manual labor to keep the lighthouse functioning. The men’s repetitive routine guides Winslow to become frustrated that he cannot work the light. Winslow discovers a wooden mermaid that he masturbates to until one day he finds her washed up on shore. He is also tormented by a one eye seabird which he is warned carries the souls of lost seaman. Frustrated and worn down he smashes the seagull to death and the winds change. The harsh warn down conditions and repeated days of labor along with giving in to alcohol leads to mistrust, revelations and madness.
A day later I’m still thinking about this movie. The mythology can be seen in our two characters. Thomas as Proteus, a sea God, protective of the light and only allowing himself admittance, while Winslow is the titan who wants to climb Mt. Olympus (the lighthouse spiral stairs to get to the light). There is even a scene where Winslow climbs the spiral stairs at night and hears robust sounds coming from Thomas. For a moment, we catch a glimpse of what looks like a sea tentacle slither across the grates.
This movie is also about identity. I was left wondering if Winslow was alone the entire time, or are him and Thomas one? Neither man is honest about who they really are to one another and perhaps themselves. Thomas may not have been the seaman he claimed to be. Winslow in a drunken stupor admits to killing the real Winslow and taking on his identity. He confesses his God given name to be Thomas as well. Is this a warp of time? Are they the same person or who the younger Thomas will become? The viewer is left questioning how many days have passed and who or what is real on this island.
The Lighthouse is a must-see experience in the theater. The grit crusty black and white was done on Kodak Double-X stock which sets the mood. The harsh weather and crashing waves are relentless on the men and the land. The Fresnel lens of the light is a magical hypnotizing mystery that is the true driving force behind our characters. She is a seductive Goddess that lead the men to fight over her, even to the point of death. There were a couple times when Winslow’s movements were sped up which only aided in the urgency of frustration and psychosis. Dafoe and Pattison are astounding in their roles as they lead us through a dizzy hypnotic tale.