There are movies that I like even though on some level I recognize that they’re really not very good. Maybe they speak to me because of something in my past or my emotional makeup, maybe I just think the women are really hot, whatever. If I’m trying to be objective, I would rate such movies lower than what reflects the degree to which I enjoyed them.
Then there are movies that I’m confident are of high quality, but didn’t draw me in all that much. Maybe they just aren’t my type, I wasn’t in the right mood for them, they required certain background knowledge or fluency in symbolism or something that I lacked, etc. If I’m trying to be objective, I would rate such movies higher than what reflects the degree to which I enjoyed them.
I’d put The Lighthouse in the latter category. I enjoyed it some, maybe around the average of movies I’ve seen. (That’s pretty good, by the way, because you have to remember that the movies I see are the small subset of available movies that I expect to like most.) But if I step back from it and try to assess it in terms of its quality unrelated to my own personal taste, I would rank it considerably higher.
The movie tells the story of two lighthouse keepers working together at a 19th century New England lighthouse. One of the men, Willem Dafoe, is the scraggly old sea dog, experienced, in charge. The other, Robert Pattinson, is younger, a newcomer, given all the shit work by Dafoe.
The setting is utterly remote. They will see no one other than each other for the duration of their time together on this rock off the coast, and we will see no one other than them.
The atmospherics of the film are excellent, as is the acting. It’s black and white, and everything about their environment is as lonely and bleak as could be, from the spartan living quarters to the howling wind.
But this is part of where the gap lies between my enjoyment of the film and my more objective assessment of it. It’s like when I saw the documentaries set in Antarctica Ice People and Encounters at the End of the World, and I was impressed with how visually stunning the atmosphere is. But it’s visually highly amazing for the first minute, moderately amazing for the next several minutes, modestly amazing for the next few minutes after that, but eventually it’s just a lot of snow.
The atmospherics of The Lighthouse are terrific from start to finish, but my appreciation for them did not remain at that same level throughout. Once it was established in my mind what the environment was like, continued emphasis on such visuals had reached a point of diminishing returns and I felt my mind more inclined to wander.
Beyond the look of the film, the human dynamics are intriguing, as we try to better understand these characters as they are trying to better understand each other.
There’s a real mystery and an ominous quality to that that drew me in, but then it took a turn that again caused a gap between my enjoyment of the film and my assessment of its quality.
You figure out early that things aren’t quite as they seem, that one or the other of these fellows may be crazy, lying about himself, a dangerous criminal, whatever. And so you watch in order to ascertain just who is up to what, who is nuts, how they will conflict, etc.
But then it turns out to be one of those movies where you can’t trust what you’re seeing. That is, it isn’t just showing you insanity from the outside, but it has that “unreliable narrator” quality that the scenes themselves may not be really happening but may be crazy things going on inside one of the characters’ head. So it becomes not like dealing with a loon or a liar, but like being crazy oneself.
Just as a matter of personal taste, I tend not to like such stories. When faced with a mysterious story, I want to be able to use the evidence offered to me to figure things out. I don’t want to experience insanity from the inside and not know what I can trust as real and what I can’t.
Because really once you start down that road, there’s no end to it. If you think the one character is more likely than the other to be the nut, or to be manipulating his partner into going crazy, or whatever your hypothesis is, you really have no grounds for thinking that since whatever evidence you are using might be a representation from the crazy one rather than really happening.
Like Dafoe at different points of the movie gives conflicting accounts of how he injured his leg, and Pattinson calls him on it. At first you’re inclined to say that Pattinson caught him lying (or telling tall tales or misremembering or whatever), since it isn’t just that Pattinson is claiming that Dafoe gave incompatible accounts but that we ourselves saw him do so. But once you take into account that one or both of those scenes where he spoke of how he injured his leg might not have really happened but might have been things Pattinson was imagining, that reasoning goes out the window. Even watching now how Dafoe reacts to being accused of inconsistency—does he act guilty like someone caught in a lie?—tells us nothing, because that too might be something Pattinson is just imagining.
Hell, maybe there was never more than one person at this lighthouse throughout the movie, and the other was a figment of his imagination. Or maybe they’re both fake, the product of some dream some teenage girl in Ogden, Utah in 1988 is having. You can’t know. The filmic equivalent of an unreliable narrator prevents you from ever knowing.
You can guess what’s real and what’s not. You can develop a preference for what you want to think is really going on. But when you’re placed inside the insanity rather than viewing it from outside, you can’t claim to know. Whatever you think of as evidence is immediately undercut by that possibility that you’re being shown something that isn’t really happening.
When I ignored that factor and implicitly treated the evidence we were seeing as reliable, I found the film quite interesting as a study in mental illness and in how these extreme circumstances were affecting these people (and how they were affecting each other).
I found myself speculating that Dafoe was purposely fucking with Pattinson, doing and saying things to make him question his own sanity, for no particular reason beyond sadistically amusing himself. You know, what else is there for him to do in that godforsaken place for sport?
But then at some point he seems to come to the realization that his new companion is seriously mentally ill, and that messing with his mind isn’t just idle entertainment or hazing, but constitutes throwing gasoline onto an insane fire. By then it’s too late, though; the dude’s a serious danger to himself and to Dafoe.
Again though, maybe nothing remotely like that is really going on, since we can’t in fact trust the evidence of what we’re seeing. But that’s what came to my mind.
Another thing I’ll mention that I appreciated about The Lighthouse is its evident scrupulous attention to detail. In the closing credits it is even mentioned that much of the dialogue is taken from 19th century fiction and nonfiction sources (Melville, et al). Clearly they wanted to make sure they got the diction, slang, etc. right.
Solid movie, worth seeing for the acting and the atmospherics alone.