Toxic Masculinity Burns Bright in ‘The Lighthouse,’ Robert Eggers’ Salty-Dog Phantasm
A bracing briny slap of barnacled lunacy, The Lighthouse chronicles two lonely men and their steep descent into ocean-soaked self-destruction. The setting is ostensibly the late 19th century, the cinematography is grainy monochromatic via boxy early-sound aspect ratio, the visual language is silent-era expressionism, the vibe is forgotten-film masterpiece. Yet the delusional paranoia and bloviating braggadocio feel unmistakably modern. It’s out of time and out of its mind.
THE LIGHTHOUSE ★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Written by: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe
Running time: 110 min
How else to describe a movie with such infectious humor and such profound dread? Rookie assistant Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) arrives on an empty, wind-battered New England island to help flinty seaman Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) tend to a desolate lighthouse. “What’s a timberman want with being a wickie?” Wake asks with sour suspicion. Winslow is just arrived from lumber work in the Hudson Bay region of Canada and claims to want a fresh start. Wake isn’t so sure, and watches him with a gimlet eye. Like a jealous lover, Wake forbids Winslow from ever going up to the lantern room, with its thick rotating glass lenses and rays of piercing illumination. “The light is mine,” he croaks like an addict.
During their first meal, as a candle fends off the darkness, Wake insists that Winslow join him in a drink. Winslow demurs, but then buckles under Wake’s glare. They’re going to be together for four weeks. Best to make nice with this salty loner, who spits out his gravelly words like a pirate and farts with impunity.
“Swab, dog, swab!” Wake barks at Winslow, who suffers chronic indignities with heavy resignation. His days are hard labor: fixing leaky shingles, putting lime in the well, shoveling coal, whitewashing the lighthouse and hauling barrels of oil up its spiral staircase. And the nights are flatulent dinners washed down with bottles of booze. “I see you sparring with a gull,” mutters Wake. “Bad luck to kill a sea bird.” He’s convinced that they’re vessels for the souls of dead sailors. Guess what? Winslow kills a gull.
Filmmaker Robert Eggers made his debut with The Witch, an eerie and cathartic portrait of Salem-era patriarchal oppression under threat from feminist sorcery. So it’s no surprise that, in this sea-battered sophomore feature, Eggers continues his dark enchantment, exploring toxic masculinity and its anguish over the female form. Deadly sirens haunt their nightmares. Winslow furtively masturbates to the scrimshaw figurine of a mermaid. “Thirteen Christmases at sea,” says Wake, bemoaning his decimated family life. “Little ones at home. She never forgave me.” These are two doomed men, unable to relate to the world, unwilling to admit it to themselves, left alone to their own ruinous impulses.
The lighthouse is a weather-beaten tale of doom that evokes the language of Melville and the horror of Lovecraft. In this place of shit-filled chamber pots and heavy-rope cable-knit sweaters, kerosene substitutes for liquor and drunken revelry leads to furniture-splintering brawls. Poseidon oversees this world, tentacles envelop it, and the skies pummel it with furious bouts of relentless rain. Wake and Winslow ache for redemption, but lose themselves in despair. It’s a cautionary tale, vigorous and searing, that shines its beacon so others won’t crash on the rocks. Take heed.