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‘The Lighthouse’ is a great but difficult piece of literature that screams ‘CINEMA!’

As Martin Scorsese and Marvel argue over what is and is not “cinema,” writer/director Robert Eggers comes along with The Lighthouse, a movie that simply screams “CINEMA!”

It makes very few concessions to the viewer other than providing gorgeously evocative black-and-white cinematography and a very simple plot. Beyond that, it’s hard to know exactly what the film’s about, not because of the paucity of the material but rather because of its denseness.

Two men, all alone, man a lighthouse on a barren island in the North Atlantic. That’s about it for story. The two men, strangers to each other, arrive on the island for a four week gig. They live in very cramped quarters, survive on very meager rations, and work 24/7, each man pulling 12-hour shifts, only seeing each other at mealtimes. Slowly but surely, they both go stir-crazy.

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Willem Dafoe plays Tom, the elder of the two, a longtime keeper who’s pulled shifts at this lighthouse before. He bosses around his new charge Ephraim Winslow, played by Robert Pattinson, making him do all the unsavory grunt work on the island. Meanwhile, Tom works the overnight shift, tending to the light and the lighthouse.

“What made the last keeper leave?” Ephraim says.
“He believed there was some enchantment in the light,” Tom responds. “Went mad he did.”

Ephraim dismisses Tom’s explanation as just another tall tale. But as the movie progresses, it too takes on the mythos of a tall tale. Ephraim finds a small carved mermaid in his mattress and soon begins hallucinating a real mermaid. Or is it an hallucination?

A sense of isolation, deprivation, and paranoia combines with the increasingly stormy conditions to create fertile ground for all sorts of untethered visions. Are those writhing octopus tentacles in the lighthouse? Is that a man’s head in the crab pot? And again, more mermaids, this time land-bound?

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When a gargantuan tempest prevents their scheduled departure from the island, the two men crack open a few bottles and drink themselves further into a kind of oblivion. They fight, they dance, they fight, they hug, and then they fight some more.

How The Lighthouse resolves itself is open to interpretation, like much of the rest of the film. It seems, on the face of it, impossible to absorb everything that’s going on in a single viewing. At one point, Tom delivers an astonishing rant of a monologue, an absolute torrent of words that can’t all be processed before the scene moves on. The same goes for much of the imagery. And the film doesn’t shy away from mythological references, either (I’m all but certain that Prometheus is invoked, but to what end, I’m not sure yet.)

Like a great but difficult piece of literature or theatre, The Lighthouse invites us to work at what we’ve seen, to analyze and to ponder (It most reminded me of Samuel Beckett’s claustrophobic plays, with a hint of Guy Maddin, Robert Flaherty, and David Lynch thrown in).

And even if the movie never quite coheres for you, there’s still a lot to relish. It’s stunning to look at, the precision of the colloquial language is a hoot, and the two performances are so riveting, they alone justify the film’s existence.

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