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“The Lighthouse” – More Like The Outhouse!

"The Lighthouse" betrays it's actors, storyline and visuals in an inept attempt at 'art'.

  I found myself drawn into a hypnotized gaze by the visual style and camera work of “The Lighthouse” but if one more person had defecated, puked, or jacked off on screen, I would have stormed out of the theater in a rage. Such are the contradictory feelings of watching “The Lighthouse”, the latest art house experiment to catch (thanks to its cast) mainstream attention...the sellout.  No, in all honesty, I can't claim the aforementioned jab with pride. As big of a movie fan as I am, I don't have a dog in the "Indie vs Studio/Art of film vs…

Inept and absurd!

"The Lighthouse" betrays it's actors, storyline and visuals in an inept attempt at 'art'.

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I found myself drawn into a hypnotized gaze by the visual style and camera work of “The Lighthouse” but if one more person had defecated, puked, or jacked off on screen, I would have stormed out of the theater in a rage. Such are the contradictory feelings of watching “The Lighthouse”, the latest art house experiment to catch (thanks to its cast) mainstream attention…the sellout. 

No, in all honesty, I can’t claim the aforementioned jab with pride. As big of a movie fan as I am, I don’t have a dog in the “Indie vs Studio/Art of film vs Art of entertainment” fight. I am a seasoned enough film viewer to know that classics exist in both camps just as much as the crap piles up around them. Plus the whole “who is better?” debate is full of contradictions: you’ll never see the indie circuit champion George Lucas did for “A New Hope”, a movie that many people forget was independently made. 

A black and white picture of two men in shadow, standing together looking out at a lighthouse, drenched in fog, a single light shining through.
Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson in “The Lighthouse”.

I’m all for experimental risks designed to push the medium forward and offer some new technique, just as much as I (like all casual modern moviegoers) crave originality and fresh ideas. Neither, however, are to be found in whatever the hell this movie thinks it is.  Be it art of film or art of entertainment, all the effort in the world won’t matter if the movie in question can’t make an audience care. “The Lighthouse” fails because there is no shred of humanity, intrigue, or any cohesive, rational reason to care about anything that happens. But it sure looks pretty and actors give it their all.

The movie opens with an excellent shot of a fog coated island and a ship emerging from the shroud to dock at its bay. Its horn bellows across the small landscape, and resonates for miles across a cold distant ocean whose depths become obscured by an ever darkening sky. As Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson approach the titular lighthouse, relieving the previous caretakers, all but the tower itself is imbued with night. This shift between light and dark, and how every character is seen from a distance, is the perfect telegraph to the audience that there is no rescue coming, and that we can’t save them either. It is a gloriously simplistic horror setup. Then Dafoe pisses in a bucket.

A black and white picture of a man pushing a wheelbarrow filled with coal. He's dressed in wool seamen clothes with cap.
Robert Pattinson in “The Lighthouse”.

From here, in almost unspoken agreement, both men set about their daily routine in and around the lighthouse. Dafoe mans the wheel and gears turning the lighthouse machine while Pattinson collects and gathers everything from wood and coal to lobsters from cages, and even cleans the floors. There is but a sparse sentence or two spoken among them at the beginning. Instead of dialogue, we are treated to long takes of both men settling in to their duties. The first real conversation between them is at breakfast, and incidentally this is where the movie first messes up…big. This mistake slowly unravels the entire film’s progression and ultimately sinks its purpose (nautical terms).

“The Lighthouse” shares several stylistic similarities with “The Shinning”, and I wish the filmmakers were fully aware of why it worked before they went and ripped it off. Many may read my statement in disdain and say that while “The Lighthouse” does borrow numerous visual cues, “The Shining” didn’t invent the “cabin fever” narrative. But that reaction itself proves my point. “The Shining” wasn’t about that, it was about the battle between subjective and objective reality, as well as trying to determine who is the reliable narrator. “The Lighthouse” reveals its hand far too early.

A black and white picture of two men in a rowboat out to sea.
Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson in “The Lighthouse”.

In their first conversation, Dafoe asks why Pattinson, a lumber man, came to work out in the ocean. When Pattinson gives a vague answer, Dafoe pokes further with an accusing “running toward or running away?” At the mention of the word “away” Pattinson says “nonononononono” in a panicked whisper. When he turns the same question on Dafoe, he replies with “careful boy” and adds a warning about asking dangerous people such things. In the following scenes Dafoe copulates with the lighthouse machine (seriously) and offers it his drink, and Pattinson (this isn’t a spoiler, it was mentioned in the trailers) kills a creature on the island in a long protracted sequence that stretches on for minutes. By the time he is finished, there is barely enough remaining of the animal to fit in the palm of his hand.This moment, by the way, is just the end of the first act. From here the movie flips from normal to batshit insane in the second act….with a whole third one to follow.

If it wasn’t already clear by the description alone, the movie rushed to reveal that both men are untrustworthy and, obviously, downright insane. You could swap out the leads for Freddy and Jason for all it would matter in making the audience care. After this sequence, I just stuck around to hear the “Round 1” bell sound and see who would get killed.

 The battle between reality and objectivity worked in “The Shining” because the audience had sympathetic viewpoints in Danny and Wendy. Even Jack, to some degree, was sympathetic, as we knew his last shreds of humanity were hanging by a thread. Plus the movie knew to keep all the big crazy stuff towards the end of the flick. In “The Lighthouse”, however, both men are thoroughly detestable psychopaths.

A black and white closeup of a shirtless Willem Defoe.
Willem Defoe in “The Lighthouse”.

There is no better way to describe the progression than this flick just dives head first into cartoon land. Scenes start and abruptly stop. Some vulgar, many confusing, and only one is scary. This could be forgiven if, again, we cared about the leads and the movie gave us reasons why this shit was happening. Why does Dafoe like doing it with the machine? Why do we have to watch Pattinson masturbate in long sequences while glaring at the camera and thinking about logs and murder? Who pissed in that bucket? To what end does Dafoe like gas lighting Pattinson into thinking he has tried to kill him? Why does a siren wash ashore? Who puked in that bucket? Why does Pattinson try to screw the siren? Who shit in that bucket? Why is there a disembodied head in the lobster trap? Why does Dafoe try to kill Pattinson with an axe? Where did the siren go? Why are both men trying to kill each other (again) before sexing each other up? Why does Pattinson keep having visions of Dafoe undressing and revealing tentacles? All of this and more, in just the second act, go unanswered. For the record, I have not referred to the actors by their character names because a mid movie plot twist (that I won’t spoil) reveals their names to be redundant. 

A black and white picture of Robert Pattinson in his seamen's coat and cap.
Robert Pattinson in “The Lighthouse”.

I have my suspicions that much of this flick was left on the cutting room floor, and the original version may have been much longer. I almost wish this were true because I (again, almost) want to see the full version. Perhaps there is more buildup to the insanity and a greater explanation for everything happening. In addition to the lunacy, there are momentary glimpses of symbolism. 

Greek Mythology is a recurring visual and verbal reference many times in the movie (if the siren wasn’t enough of a hint), but all of these feel wildly out of place when paired with the lunacy the two characters are going through and (even with the blatant ending) never come to fruition. It felt like the filmmakers were trying to force the symbolism into their flick, much like some action movies will have an opera song playing during a shootout; it’s a dead end gimmick aspiring to inject “art”. In reality, said action flick isn’t operatic unless it is exploring the themes that opera deals with, and “The Lighthouse” fails as a mythological tale because it is using symbols as a gimmick instead of exploring their use in the story.

A black and white picture of a giant lighthouse bulb.
There is one scene in the film, between the bile and absurdity, that is incredible. Dafoe and Pattinson have an argument and Dafoe verbally blasts him in such a manner that one thinks he has cursed him. A stark shadow covers his face and he and his outline on the wall seem to merge. Not only is it a gorgeous use of black and white, but it is the only scary scene in the movie. 

Part of the fear in old horror flicks (partially because technology could only do so much) was how they dared an audience’s imagination into guessing when the monster/evil would appear, and this moment hits the nail on the head. The scene builds the suspicion that he isn’t human, and Dafoe owns the screen by spitting hate filled ravings for minutes at a time…in one breath. Even Pattinson acts his heart out in the movie. It’s just a shame that all their efforts are swept up in an overload of cartoonish absurdity and a landfill sized chamber pot.  

A black and white picture of a spiral staircase with Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson sitting at the bottom.
Despite what it may seem, I was excited to see this film. What peaked my early interest was all the buzz comparing this film to the work of Andrei Tarkavsky, whose “Stalker” is one of my all time favorite science fiction films. Andrei’s long silent takes were evocative of his belief that silence and isolation were essential to the human condition, and that the free will presented in such moments are how humanity improves. It is our journey to a solitary form of enlightenment. Much like Charles Buckowski’s line of “isolation is a gift, all others are a test of your endurance.” Watching “The Lighthouse”, I understood the comparison in that there were a lot of long takes, but there is nothing of Andrei’s work here. Both characters are irredeemable and crazy at the beginning…and remain there until the bitter end.

The Lighthouse disturbs not with scares, but more for its inept and vulgar execution that betrays its premise, actors and visuals.  Despite that, I hope the stars win Oscars. Yeah, I’m confused too. So here is something the movie would appreciate: Lighthouse? more like OUTHOUSE! 


SOURCEEric Yanders
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Eric Yanders earned his Masters Degree in English Literature from the University of Missouri. He now teaches writing and comprehension. When he's not teaching he's watching films and writing reviews for publications like act.land!