The Lighthouse is a film I was drawn to specifically because Willem Dafoe was in it. I’m not even a huge follower of his work; I know him from Spiderman, Aquaman, Death Note and Mr Bean’s Holiday, which are (with the exception of Spiderman) probably some of his lesser roles considering how much he’s done. But one day I remember seeing this clip of Willem Dafoe in black-and-white raving like a 19th century sailor, cursing someone for not enjoying how he cooked lobster. That is what drew me to this film.
The Lighthouse is an incredibly dark movie about one man’s downward trajectory into madness – that man being Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) – on an isolated island tending to a lighthouse with his boss Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). But it’s not as simple as it sounds; this movie is incredibly abstract in a lot of ways, intentionally leaves things up for interpretation and quickly deviates from the tradition structure it establishes at the start of the movie as we follow Howard’s decent.
What’s most intriguing about the film is how you can’t pinpoint the moment Howard loses his mind. Unlike a movie like, say, Joker (2019) where the character’s point of no return can be singled out, there is no such scene here. From the very start of the film, Howard is seeing visions of a Siren after finding a clay model of one in his bed, stowed there by he who worked there before him. It gives the impression that Howard was always insane but, for first time viewers, could also be a red herring there is some truth to the Siren’s existence. He then starts picking fights with sea gulls who get in his way by throwing rocks at them or whatever, until he eventually breaks and beats one to death extremely brutally. And at this stage of the film it’s hard to attribute this to any kind of insanity because, on the surface, it reads as a vent of frustration given how dissatisfied, lonely and unhappy Howard feels by being trapped on this island with Wake.
Speaking of Wake, he’s an equally interesting fellow. He’s an ex-sailor who may or may not have been injured killing a shipmate, has struggled to sleep with a woman since his separation from his wife and who spends every evening pleasuring himself with the beacon at the top of the lighthouse. He talks like a pirate, always throwing in words I’d never in a million years imagined being used so casually in conversation, going on at length about the souls of dead sailors, things that lurk beneath the sea and his disturbing attraction to the lighthouse itself.
Howard can’t stand working under or living with such a strange person and quickly grows resentful of him. But whenever they get drunk the two are like life long friends. For as dark as this film is, there is also a lot of dark comedy that had me laughing. Howard and Wake slow dancing before spontaneously erupting into a fist fight is a highlight of the film, as are the many sea shanties they sing before collapsing into heartfelt monologues. But, much like the rest of the film, even these scenes are devoid of innocence.
Howard drunkenly confessing to murder and Wake’s rejection of it causes everything to get worse. Having already lost track of time, trust in the only other man he can speak to and his sense of security, Howard begins to feel a deep sense of paranoia. He becomes convinced Wake is hiding something in the lighthouse from him because of his own deluded visions and inability to interpret the world around him. At one point, Wake even taunts him by saying the man could not tell if he was a figment of is imagination or not. My reading of the film is that Wake was a figment of his imagination, but there’s enough to work with to argue they are two different people.
Everything even marginally unnormal that occurs in this film begs the audience to question the legitimacy of what they’re seeing. I, for instance, do believe that Thomas Wake was at one point a real living person but who, eventually does fade into being a part of Howard’s imagination. Wake begins the film as an annoying quirky boss but, as Howard becomes more stressed, coincidently also becomes a man who places curses on him and raves about unnatural phenomenon. At one point in the film Howard finds a severed head by the ocean and believes it to be the head of a man killed by Wake. I, however, interpreted it as Wake’s head and as a signal that Wake was no longer real whenever we saw him. I thought, after having taken too much abuse from him, Howard just decided to kill him in a not so dissimilar way to how he killed his previous boss who wouldn’t get off his back. Even if I’m wrong here, Wake’s presence is confirmed to be at least somewhat imaginary after he dies near the end of the film only to pop up a scene later wielding an axe, dressed slightly differently and swinging it at Howard to keep him from climbing the lighthouse.
What makes it so hard, but also interesting, to try and find anything definitive about the film’s events is the fact that Howard is a highly unreliable narrator due to his inability to perceive time in the same way Wake does. And if Wake is a figment of Howard’s insane mind and paranoia, even he cannot be believed; he might give us some insight into Howard’s mind (his more direct speech about addressing Howard’s insanity, for example), but the fact he is a part of the person we know is insane makes him, by extension, unreliable.
It’s truly the sort of film I can’t tell you how to interpret given how ambiguous so much of it is. Because of that, it’s also a film not everyone will enjoy. The visual presentation of it being in black and white and shot on a small aspect ratio alone is enough to put some people off, but I found it just elevated the atmosphere. If you’re up for experiencing something different and bizarre with a tight focus on two questionable characters, who are both portrayed excellently well by their actors, then I would absolutely recommend watching The Lighthouse. By the end of the movie you’re left wondering how the hell the structure and tone became what it is. It started off as some kind of dark fantasy but nosedived into psychological horror with an eerie Lovecraftian tone to it. It’s a very unique film with a lot to offer.