Ambiguity in Black and White

Admittedly, I am late to the party when it comes to The Lighthouse. I somehow missed the film in theaters, and then the DVD remained stuck at the top of my Netflix queue due to lack of availability.  Having finally seen this acclaimed sophomore effort (following The Witch) from director Robert Eggers, I now understand why there was such a long wait. Allow me to wax ecstatic about the film for a few paragraphs…

While written by Robert Eggers and his brother Max, The Lighthouse feels like a collaboration between Herman Melville, H.P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King. Broadly allusive, the film gives nods toward such classic texts as Moby-Dick, “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and The Shining. For all the homage it pays, though, The Lighthouse still manages to work its materials into a startlingly original mix.

The black-and-white film’s stark visuals are astounding; a sense of creepy and inhospitable place is clearly established. A storm-pounded, barren moonscape of an island (seemingly devoid of life save for the flocks of evil seagulls that torment with their pecks and squawks) furnishes the sinister setting. Wind howls spiritedly, a foghorn repeatedly bellows in the background with the tenor of an ancient saurian beast, and the towering light sweeps across the seascape like some revolving, cyclopean eye.

Sent to work (which might just be another way of saying “stranded”) on this rocky speck of a setting are a pair of lighthouse keepers whose enforced intimacy in such close and unhomely space breeds paranoia and deadly rivalry. Complexly drawn, these two characters carry the film. Both Willem Dafoe (as a crusty old sea dog prone to delivering speeches of Ahab-ian grandeur) and Robert Pattinson (as a taciturn assistant with a dark past, and a thoroughly unreliable viewpoint) give nothing short of career-defining performances.

It’s on the level of plot, however, that The Lighthouse most fully resonates. This is a film where the viewer is never quite knows where it is heading–and still isn’t sure where it arrived at when the closing credits start rolling. Making fine art of ambiguity, The Lighthouse encompasses multiple interpretations, and can be approached through a variety of explanatory frameworks: the natural (excessive alcohol abuse–ultimately including kerosene-and-honey cocktails–is bound to lead to derangement), the psychological (madness results from extended isolation from civilization, not to mention the churning guilt over past misdeed), the supernatural (Ancient-Mariner-type curses; cosmic wonders too awfully sublime to behold), the mythic (symbolically–and perhaps literally–the shapeshifting Greek god Proteus forms a key figure here), and the existential (the idea that hell is repetition isn’t limited to the Sisyphean drudgery of lighthouse-keeping labor).

Arguably not since Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw has there been a work of horror that has made such masterful and captivating use of ambiguity. Yet this is no genteel ghost story, and brimming with earthy humor, the film proves not just artsy but (actually) fartsy. The Lighthouse haunts with its imagery and implications alike; it is a beacon to fans who enjoy smart evocations of the macabre (that don’t yield up easy answers), and a shining example of why the present-day horror film genre has entered into a golden age.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *