The Myrna Loy
I grew up in a coastal town on the Straits of Juan de Fuca, brightened a lighthouse, which eventually was replaced by a Coast Guard beacon. At night, that sweeping light shined into my bedroom window.
I loved to open and close my eyes in sync with the rotating strobe light, which methodically swept across my house all night long. If my timing was just right, I could pretend the light was always on – closing my eyes during the dark spells, and opening them only when the light returned.
That’s an optimistic view of life, of course. I could just as easily have timed my eyes to open only in darkness. But having been raised by a loving mom and a loving, if distant dad, I always saw the world as lights on, not lights off. I’m still that way, with occasional lapses into cynicism and pessimism – but I try to turn my beacon back on as soon as possible. It’s been a bit dim, recently.
In the deeply metaphoric movie “The Lighthouse” we meet two men who live on a remote island off New England in the 1890s. For the record, the actual lighthouse is near Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia. These men care for the lighthouse, that is a beacon for boats sailing on the tumultuous sea.
Elderly Thomas Wake is in charge of the island, with Ephraim Winslow serving as his “wickie,” the keeper of the lighthouse – poetically the one who trims the “wicks.”
It’s fair to say that if Wake and Winslow played my strobe-light game at night, they’d only be opening their eyes when the light was off. These are troubled souls, only precariously sane.
“The Lighthouse” is not a film for the faint of heart, nor for those who enjoy upbeat literal stories. The psycho-drama narrative chronicles a spiral into depression and hysteria by both men. Poetically, it’s a sort of dance into darkness, punctuated both by an alcohol-assisted arm-in-arm jig and later by a slow dance, heads on shoulders. There’s also a hint of romance, although this is no Brokeback Island.
It would be easy to interpret this as an existential reworking of “No Exit” or, perhaps, as nod to Ingmar Bergman’s depressing winter descents into madness and melancholy. But “The Lighthouse” can’t hold a wick to either of those masters – although tone and style is similar.
Filming in black and white deepens the darkness, of course. I love movies without color, just as I love the landscapes of Ansel Adams. Box office be damned. Let’s make art.
Quite a few essays have been written unpacking the symbolism. Readers might consult a Hollywood Reporter article by Richard Newby for hints as to the meaning of the one-eyed seagull or a man standing naked atop the lamp. Be ready for references to Neptune, Prometheus and Satan. David Fear’s “Rolling Stone” analysis is also enlightening.
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But this script is no “Finnegan’s Wake” or “Paradise Lost.” Some treatises weaken under the microscope, as I suspect this would.
It’s been tritely labeled as a horror film, but that’s condescending to filmmaking so densely crafted.
But it’s clear that director Robert Eggers makes films with dark poetry in mind, inviting us to sip kerosene while we argue about pugilistic seagulls.
The filmmaking is exceptional, including stunning camera shots that take us up through the center of the lighthouse, weaving as we go. That scene itself has already been the subject of praise and micro-analysis. The acting is strong, with both Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe both willing to bare both their souls and their bodies -- and their entrails, for that matter.
I ended up admiring “Lighthouse” for its acting, its writing and its craft. At the same time, I can’t say I liked it, nor will I return. I’ll rent Bergman’s “Winter Light,” instead.
But “Lighthouse” is a prototypic example of how a low-budget indie film can generate international buzz by eschewing box office motivation and instead pursuing a ruthlessly personal vision.
We critics, tired of sequels and prequels, admire such courage.
I don’t see moviegoers rushing into “The Lighthouse.” A half dozen patrons of The Myrna walked out when the images turned relentlessly violent and unsettling. I nodded.
But I stayed, because Eggers is an artist making films to enlighten, not to please.
As the film was ending, a song started drifting through my mind: Leonard Cohen’s “You Want It Darker.” In those lyrics, Cohen talks of “a million candles burning for the love that never came.”
The poem is an invitation to snuff the candle: “You want it darker, we kill the flame.”
In Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” our lighthouse keepers do, indeed, kill the flame.
And it gets very very dark.