There is a great Nantucket saying: “If you can see the ocean, then the ocean can see you.” It’s a simple, piercing revelation for those who live in sight of the shoreline. Somewhere out there is a power great and unknowable, and we live next to it not by our own pleasure, but by the its permission. Small wonder we have spent the better part of human history fearing what monsters known and imagined might dwell beneath the surface, why we assign the most powerful of gods to its incredible power, and why we one of the classic human ambitions is to cross the ocean, plunder its riches and stand defiantly before it. This is heavy stuff, sure. But it’s nothing compared to the depths of symbolism, folklore, myth and legend that fills a tightly-wound and deeply weird tale of horror and mystery, manhood and madness, knowledge and identity: The Lighthouse.
The story takes place somewhere off the coast of New England, in the late 1800s. Ephraim Winslow arrives on a lonely rock island to begin a four-week stint as a wickie—an assistant lighthouse keeper. His only company is his boss, Thomas Wake, a crabby old salt with a fake leg who, when he isn’t spinning all kinds of sea-yarns, browbeats the living hell out of Ephraim. Things get strange almost immediately. Wake refuses to show Winslow the top of the lighthouse for reasons unexplained, and is seen ascending there nightly to bathe naked in its blinding beam. Meanwhile, Winslow finds a discarded scrimshaw of a mermaid and promptly begins having visions of one to which he furiously enjoys one-handed romantic company. As tensions between Winslow and Wake reach a boiling point, Winslow breaks one of Wake’s seemingly arbitrary rules, and appears to evoke a kind of punishment for the entire island that swiftly turns a simple lighthouse job into a wild descent into drunkenness, misery and madness in which both men realize neither is really what they seem, that reality itself might be far different than what they imagine it to be, and that there is no way in hell both of them are going to make it off that island alive.
This is a movie that wastes not a single frame of itself; every shot is carefully planned to establish the narrative and the five or six themes running through it. Is this an Edgar Allen Poe tale of gruesome murder and insanity? Is it a tale of the ancient magic that dwells beneath the sea? Is it a retelling of Greek myth itself? Is it a story about farting too much and getting drunk off of honeyed kerosene? The answer to all of these questions is yes. Yes, yes, yes.
Some films get so wrapped up in their literary pretensions that they forget to finish the story they began. With the Lighthouse, it all feels a bit different: the story ends up in such a bizarre and uncertain place by the end of its run-time, it almost feels like its somewhat normal beginning was a kind of ruse to fool us into believing that this was going to be a mere tale of two guys who grow to hate each other so much that they nearly start making out.
What makes this movie so much fun is watching how it gets from such a sober beginning to such a wildly hammered conclusion. Every time we learn more about Wake, we wonder just how many poor wickies he drove bonkers over the years with his saltwater ramblings, his crackpot tyranny, and whatever strange secrets he professes to hold? And every time we learn more about Winslow, we wonder, just what exactly did he do before he took this lighthouse job? Why is he so suddenly infatuated with mermaids? Why is he hellbent to see whatever it is that Wake sees at the top of the lighthouse? And why is he letting a one-eyed seagull get the better of him?
There are no easy answers for any of this. What one takes from The Lighthouse is likely to be fairly individual and subject to revision upon repeated viewings. It’s a rare movie that has so much of itself to give; the tricky part is being willing to plumb its depths. But as one prepares to do so, know that the moment of truth in this movie isn’t when Winslow takes his last trip up the lighthouse stairs. It’s much earlier, when he and Wake are eyeballing each other over dinner and Winslow gives an unexpectedly blunt assessment of the lobster Wake cooked for him. It seems like mild provocation but Wake responds with an unexpectedly ferocious retort that is not just a two-minute masterpiece of rage and sadness and regret. It is a mission statement for the back half of the film:
“Let Neptune strike ye dead, Winslow. Hark! Hark, Triton, hark! Below, bid our father the sea king, rise from the depths, full foul in his fury, black waves teeming with salt foam to smother this young mouth with pungent slime. To choke ye! Engorging your organs ’til ye turn blue and bloated with bilge and brine and can scream no more. Only when he, crowned in cockle shells, with slithering tentacled tail and steaming beard, take up his fell be-finned arm, his coral-tined trident screeches banshee-like in the tempest, and plunges right through your gullet! Bursting ye! A bulging bladder no more, but a blasted bloody film, now a nothing for the harpies and the souls of dead sailors to pick, and claw, and feed upon, only to be lapped up and swallowed by the infinite waters of the dread emperor himself. Forgotten to any man, to any time. Forgotten to any god or devil. Forgotten even to the sea. For any stuff or part of Winslow, even any scantling of your soul, is Winslow no more, but is now, itself the sea!”
“Alright, have it your way. I like your cooking.”