Remember last week, in my Honey Boy review where I talked about a film baffling me? How it can be a good or bad thing? Well, I didn’t expect to be left feeling that way twice within seven days.
The Lighthouse first came onto my radar (is that a pun? Let me know, because I haven’t decided yet) at the tail end of last year. I saw it as an intriguing concept, a black-and-white psychological horror experience, possibly about sea monsters, or maybe about two men going mad. Well I sit here months later, having watched the film, still wondering what it was about. I know for a fact that sea monsters and men going mad featured somewhere, but I can’t say that the film was ‘about’ that; because I don’t really think it knows itself.
This is the part of the review where I’d summarise the story a little bit, to put things into context, a job that I’ve found difficult in the past with certain films, but am finding it nigh-on impossible to find the words here, without spoiling the film more than I already have.
It’s a film that wrong-foots you; you think we’re settling into a tale of two men getting to know each other and unravelling their mysterious characters, but then it slowly introduces a surreality to its narrative, twisting what was once a mystery about two men and their background, into a mystery that is on speaking terms with HP Lovecraft, if you see what I mean, the surreality envelopes its previous slow-burn until you no longer recognise what is reality and what is imagination.
In other ways, it plays your expectations like Mozart played the piano, masterfully misguiding you with its sleight-of-hand approach to supernatural horror, lulling you into a false sense of security, even the way it shrouds it’s main characters in mystery until well into its runtime, there’s a feeling of disconnect between these characters that is expertly implemented, making their actions unpredictable and keeping them at arms length from the viewer.
I do feel, however, that the aspiration to be ambiguous in its content somewhat kneecaps its storytelling potential. The film can’t really be said to have a story as such, more of a series of events that show a slow decline in both characters sanity, it doesn’t feel crafted like a story, it’s rather scattershot and told in a way that deliberately makes you question its timeline, which really adds to the sense of disorientation the film creates. There’s one scene in particular where one characters says that weeks have passed, rather than the implied days or even hours, so it does feel like it’s deliberately messing with us.
There are times where one feels that this is a case of two narratives trying to meet halfway. One of which is an old-fashioned ghost story with a splash of nautical myth about it, and one about the erosion of sanity that comes with isolation, and I’m not saying it doesn’t work, I’m just saying it’s a bit creaky from time to time, straining to meet in the middle and create a seamless marriage between the two plot points.
What really sold The Lighthouse however, was its presentation. Shot entirely in black-and-white and in an aspect ratio straight out of the 1910’s (1.19:1 for all you technical nerds) it tries to frame itself like an old horror story, and boy does it succeed. The cinematography alone creates a bleak atmosphere unmatched by many films, only furthering the initial feeling of isolation, and pulling the more surreal moments into sharper focus.
It isn’t just the b&w approach that makes its retro chills though, it’s in the small details, like the aspect ratio, for instance, that makes it feel like we’re missing something slightly off-screen, or the sound design, the crashing waves and cries of the gull pulling us directly into the scene, it all blends so seamlessly together in a way that might remind you of old Hammer horror, or silent horror even, its visual approach builds its atmosphere so effectively that you feel unnerved even before the mystery begins to unfold.
It’s also brilliantly acted, there is pretty much only two characters in the entire film, so there was a hell of a lot for the two leads to carry, luckily the two leads were two of films most talented; Willem Dafoe, who seems to be enjoying somewhat of a renaissance with slightly surreal Indy films, like this and last years At Eternity’s Gate, and Robert Pattinson, who has firmly cast aside with Twilight shackles and established himself as a powerhouse art-house performer.
The script is a real winner too, it’s dialogue feels genuine and of the time, lending each soliloquy a dash of grandeur, with its overstated delivery, it makes the film seem like a sailors tall-tale, much like we see within its runtime, it has an authenticity about it, yet it’s accessible enough for all to understand and enjoy.
Both characters have a feel of men who are hiding secrets, and they hide it well behind their stern exteriors, Dafoe’s salty sea-dog is a particular delight, espousing wonderful Shakespeare-mixed-with–Lovecraft type monologues, regaling tales from his days at sea; and Pattinson is a barely-contained powder keg, only made worse by his proximity to the increasingly-irritating sea-dog and his own isolation.
All in all, despite an oblique approach to story telling, landing somewhere between pretentious and almost incomprehensible, there is enough to recommend The Lighthouse for its peerless atmosphere, brilliant performances, and just its sheer uniqueness. Confusion is not always a negative, sometimes a film can just have a great atmosphere with a dense mystery that takes years to unravel, and it’s still worth it as long as it delivers in other attributes, and this does, in spades.