Updated: Sep 12, 2020
Sacrificing character arcs for pretentious dialogue leaves the audience out in the cold.
I was genuinely excited to see 'The Lighthouse'. Not only do I love psychological horror, but the A24 formula of a tight three-act structure, clever use of foreshadowing and depth of characterisation meant that this experimental film had all the hallmarks of being truly great. Certainly, many critics have been creaming themselves over it leading to an impressive 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. So to say I am disappointed to be leaving a negative review is an understatement.
'The Lighthouse' is seemingly a metaphor for mans struggle against the shadows of his guilt and remorse, forever striving towards the light, and yet being confronted by his own inner demons.
I am not going to deny that some aspects of the film are genuinely brilliant.
We are greeted by genuinely unsettling shot of Dafoe (Wake) and Pattison (Howard ) silently looking into camera. The one-eyed gull, Howard's obsession with the lighthouse lamp and the maniacal laugh when he finally meets it, genuinely deliver on the creep factor .
The set up of the characters in the first act is flawless. We are introduced to their quirks; Howard's chain-smoking and Wake's incessant flatulence. We discover that Howard is new to the role, has read the manual and has a somewhat idealised sense of grandeur as to what being a lighthouse keeper involves. We are also informed the last assistant died after going mad. Foreshadowing at its finest.
The use of the lodgings as a metaphor for Howard's deteriorating mental health, is also a clever use of the set. Everything appears fine at first except the slightly offset picture of a ship, making it appear as if its in a storm. The finding of a mermaid amulet in a hole in the bed. The absence of clean water meaning alcohol is the only palatable drink. Yet, despite Howard's efforts, the lodgings deteriorate to the extent they flood in the storm.
The Cinematography is simply gorgeous. The use of black and white film added to the sense of unease and isolation. There was also beautiful shots of the inner lighthouse, Fibonacci spiral staircase, the subtly swinging pendulum. I was also pleased to see that any reference to sea monsters and sirens were kept to a minimum so to appeal to the imagination, without detracting from the overall story.
Dafoe and Pattison both deliver powerful performances. Whilst Dafoe brings depth to a 'old sea dog' caricature of Wake, Pattison conveys his own character's range of emotions well, leaving no illusion as to what Howard is thinking or feeling. There are subtle touches of humour in the dialogue despite the tension and irritation.
So what went wrong?
Firstly, we have to remember that The Lighthouse has been categorised as horror, rather than drama. A horror film's entire purpose is to terrify, horrify or at the minimum, disgust. Maybe this is a dark drama trying to fit in the wrong box. However, the bitter disappointment comes from the sacrifice of both story and character arcs for dialogue that contributed little to the overall plot.
There is definitely a homo-erotic undercurrent in the film between Wake and Howard, yet it still seems incredible that he would start to bark like a dog after Howard beats him, be lead around on a leash only to die within seconds of having dirt thrown on his face. Of course, the fact we see his severed head in a trap and he runs back to kill Howard after dying which leads us to believe this is all in Howard's head anyway - in fact we are told that is the case by Wake.
The ultimate story line of The Lighthouse is that Howard is wrestling against guilt for seeing a colleague die in a logging accident 'whilst he just stood there.' He also confesses to stealing this mans identity to get work. However, we are told this, rather than being shown it, which is a classic writing error so easily avoided. The only visual reference to anyone else is the back of a blonde mans head during one of Howard's sexual fantasies at the end of the second act, which is far too late to make a believable contribution to the plot.
Plus, if Howard was the innocent bystander that he claims to be, then the acts of violence and depravity in the third act would not be a natural consequence of his guilt haunting him. Given it is Howard's inner demons that are the true antagonist here, then The Lighthouse fails to explore them leading to a frankly weird and unbelievable final act.
In short, The Lighthouse failed to illuminate key aspects of the character and story arcs, leaving the overall premise to be dashed against the rocks.