by Pip Williams
“Then I ran across a monster who was sleeping by a tree
And I looked and frowned and the monster was me.”
-David Bowie, The Width Of A Circle
“Why’d’ye spill yer beans, Tommy?”
Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), hollow-eyed, moustachioed lumber-man turned lighthouse keeper (henceforth, “wickie”) has just unpacked his guilty soul in a tense, quiet, one-take monologue, pouring out his sinister reasons for entering his godforsaken position in the lighthouse; the camera has barely let him go, his sweating, shaking head takes up the entire screen. He reaches the end, looks straight into the camera, and says “How else am I gonna find respectable work?”- pleading with us, begging for our forgiveness, our absolution. Then…
“Why’d’ye spill yer beans?”
It is the voice of Winslow’s fellow wickie, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). It echoes, disembodied, throughout the tiny room the men share, through the dark corridor that connects it to the lighthouse…
“Why’d’ye spill yer beans?”
Hunting and pitying, mantra-like and snarling, it echoes up the mighty spiral that leads to the top of the lighthouse column. It echoes around our heads. Suddenly Winslow’s at the top of the stairs; it’s raining; he’s staring, panting at something on the floor…
“Why’d’ye spill yer beans?”
In a film of unsettling and surreal moments and images, this two-minute sequence stays in the mind as among the most profoundly disturbing. It leaps uncompromisingly (yet with a certain sly elan) from stark, confessional naturalism to nightmarish surrealism, keeping us on the back foot until its blaring, phantasmagorical reveal. It’s a chilling microcosm of the film as a whole- the oppressive sense of guilt and paranoia, the hypnotic, cerebral battle between two deeply unstable men, the horror of masculinity.
Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse is an utterly extraordinary film. With its two actors, limited number of locations and reliance on archaic and muscular dialogue, it’s bracingly theatrical, calling to mind Beckett or early Pinter in its dislocation and never-ending sense of dread.
I was also reminded of the oft-quoted line from the book of Job (1:15, if you’re following along)- “and I only am escaped alone to tell thee” (previously used as the epigraph to Melville’s Moby Dick, another nautical tale of obsession and madness); The whole film has a candle-lit, sea-shanty feel, of a yarn long-forgotten and half-remembered; image after image dancing around a central horrific truth, a dark guess at something truly terrible; like someone waking next to you and trying to describe their nightmare.
Eggers is showing himself, with The Lighthouse and 2015’s harrowing The Witch (more on that later), to be a master of chamber pieces, of lethally focused, precise explorations of suspicion, isolation and despair- tiny communities locked into psychological battles with a monster they think they’ve locked out, but which they have in fact shut in with them.
Despite, as I say, the film’s theatricality, it is also gloriously, immersively filmic; it hammers itself into our eyes and ears in the way that only a film can. The sound is that little bit too loud, the shots held longer than you think they should be, the cameras right in actors’ faces- frequently they stare right at us, or glare down at us from a height. Eggers does not allow us to watch comfortably from a distance, but instead he traps us in his world, makes sure we feel the panic and confusion that Winslow and Wake do- they beg for release, for pity, they scream and weep at us, and it is our job to bear witness.
He makes us feel the crash of every wave, we feel the rain in our hair, the damp in our clothes, and the dirt under our nails; he creates a deeply physical world, a world of spit and blood and semen (able semen, if you’ll allow me). The two men’s physical toil and privation feeds into the madness of the piece; as Pattinson, smeared with a bucket of Dafoe’s hangover faeces (Context? Not my speed), heaves a wheelbarrow of coal through driving rain, his eyes popping, his moustache bristling, you also feel like you might well be going insane. You feel madness, fear on a visceral level, an instinctual, physical level- Eggers, Pattinson and Dafoe dispense with the niceties and mainline themselves into the nightmare cortex of your brain.
Throughout, Eggers plays with the audience’s expectations of film itself; I remember hearing once that it is in the nature of the human brain to construct narratives from sequences of images, to assume that one image follows another causally, if we are shown them in a given sequence. The Lighthouse deconstructs this expectation with demonic glee- as mentioned earlier, scenes that seem to be straightforward naturalism morph into horrifying fantasia; we will see a character walking from one scene into another before suddenly bolting upright from sleep- we are never, ever certain how much of what’s gone before is dream, fantasy, imagination. We are always on the back foot, totally at the mercy of this terrifying fable.
This is all aided by the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography- the film looks a bit like a photo you might see on a grandparent’s mantelpiece or a charity shop, faded and forgotten. The relentless waves are bright white and the shadows are bottomless, a chiaroscuro hellscape of tentacles, dark corners and sputtering candlelight- we see all the characters see, and never what they do not, leaving us in exactly the same boat as them (I cannot promise to cease with the nautical puns). Eggers has spoken of his debt to painters Jean Delville and Sascha Schneider (whose painting “Hypnose” inspired one of the film’s most arresting images), but I was reminded too of Gustav Doré, who famously illustrated early editions of Paradise Lost and The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner, two further tales of human folly, woe and ill-advised seagull assault.
At one point, Dafoe’s character asks Pattinson’s how long they’ve been in the lighthouse- a week? Four days? And we realise with dread that we have no idea. We have been given no landmarks, no footholds. We are lost at sea (sorry), waiting to wake up, waiting for some resolution that we are never given.
Did I also mention that it’s really fucking funny? It’s hysterical. Eggers, asked to summarize the film in an interview, said “Nothing good can happen when two men are trapped alone in a giant phallus”. It is a skewering of the absurdity of masculinity, of men regressing into boys, farting and swearing and wanking, and what happens when you give one of those men fairly arbitrary authority over another (Dafoe’s linguistically florid speech accusing Pattinson of laziness is one of the best and funniest pieces of writing I’ve recently come across, containing, as it does, the phrase “sparkling like a sperm whale’s pecker”). The horrific situation is mined for all its dark comedy as well as its terror; G Wilson Knight, in his key text on Shakespearean criticism The Wheel Of Fire, talks of the “demonic laughter” that echoes through the world of Shakespeare’s tragedies, of the laughter of the universe at the pitiful situations of the characters, that beg to be resolved by death or comedy. The same demonic laughter rings through The Lighthouse, and we are never sure whether a scene will end with horror or laughter. Crucially, neither are the characters.
All of which to say I really really liked The Lighthouse. But I also think Eggers is using its truly unique style to make some fundamental points about genre and arguably about human psychology.
I have held for a long time that horror as a genre is fundamentally about isolation. Horror comes from being cut off from your fellow humans, and the terrible spiritual loneliness that comes with that, which causes people to do or imagine terrible things. See Jack Nicholson howling and smashing his way through the deserted, mountaintop hotel in The Shining, phone lines down and roads blocked by snow; see Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary’s Baby, trapped by a community of Satanic liars pretending to help her, nobody to protect her or defend her; you could even look right back and look at poor old Jonathan Harker in Dracula, shacked up in a labyrinthine castle in a foreign country with a bloodthirsty aristocrat, isolated by language, geography and his host’s vampiric machinations.
Horror, and the stuff of horror, cannot happen in a functioning and open community. In order for the forces of darkness to work their way in, for murder, possession, torture and any of the other atrocities people (and beings) wreak on each other in those films to become a possibility, the individual has to be isolated. Individuals have to be divorced from the idea of community, society and togetherness- in short, the animal brain takes over, the overriding instinct to run or kill.
The films of Robert Eggers bear my theory out remarkably effectively. In both (The Witch and The Lighthouse), we are presented with small social units in near-total physical isolation, and Eggers turns up the heat under them until they have no choice but to implode.
The Witch concerns a small, New England family, banished to the outskirts of America and living in near-poverty, and they slowly become convinced of the presence of Satan among them. With no wider community to dilute their paranoia, they have no choice but to turn on each other, taking a hammer to their family unit and ultimately destroying themselves totally. And that I think is the most upsetting and disturbing thing about the film; while Eggers uses many of the stylistic tricks he goes on to refine in The Lighthouse, and the film itself is packed with intensity, growing dread and an extremely sinister goat, what makes it an enduring and really gruelling watch is that destruction of the family as a unit. There is no sense of intimacy in the film, no sense of community, no trust, and the slow breakdown of a family in an environment where they really need each other, an environment that seems to be set against them already, is truly heartbreaking.
Similarly in The Lighthouse, we’re shown a harsh, inhospitable environment and shown that there’s no way out. Eggers then places two strangers in it and turns up the heat, seeing exactly how far two men will go to retain their sanity or to protect their secrets.
But what Eggers does so cleverly and elegantly as a writer is using supernatural or generic (as in, relating to genre) elements to mask or examine what’s at the heart of this isolation; is there actually a demon possessing the family in The Witch? Or is repression and suspicion so deeply ingrained in them by religion and society that they need to use the devil to explain their anger?
Is there in fact something unnatural at the top of the lighthouse, or is Ephraim Winslow simply an aimless, violent, disaffected man with no outlet, trying to find a way of reconciling his guilt and his humanity?
What Eggers always seems to suggest is that the monster is already inside, that we’ve locked it in with us.
The staring into the camera in The Lighthouse, the piercing sound design, the shots right in the characters’ faces, they are all designed to show that the ultimate terror for these characters is themselves; the horror they cannot escape is what’s inside their heads, and the film uses its filmic qualities to burrow deeply and painfully into that fear.
“Why’d’ye spill yer beans, Tommy?”
Perhaps that line isn’t mocking, taunting. Perhaps it’s a genuine question- “Why do I know this now? Why do I know what’s in your head?” Perhaps it’s the genuine fear of the darkness that can live inside another consciousness, the Pandora’s box which confession opens.
The demons, goats, squids and mermaids that have populated Eggers’ work so far are not what makes his films truly horrific. The horror is us, is the human consciousness, far away from home and with no one coming to save us.
If you’ll permit me, we are the Witch. We are the lighthouse.
Shiver me timbers (etc.)