This movie, directed by Robert Eggers, from 2019 is described as horror in some critical circles which would normally be enough to put me off. Having glimpsed the trailer at Rich Mix last year though I was keen to see it. We were never able to catch it at the cinema due to logistics but also a series of negative reviews from friends.
I wish I had ignored these as, even on the small screen, this film was brilliant. And fantastically hauntological! Yeah, yeah, I know. When you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. More on that later.
The elevator pitch is that this is a film about two lighthouse keepers getting very drunk and losing their minds in New England in the 1890s. The viewing experience is intense and long-lasting. Haunting, one could even say.
Bottom line: the cinematography is superb, phenomenal acting from Robert Pattinson (Ephraim Winslow) and Willem Dafoe (Thomas Wake) and the storyline is compelling. I initially thought Pattinson’s accent was an appalling attempt at Irish but it turns out to be an intriguing Canadian/ New England period accent, reminiscent of DDL in Gangs of New York. More psychodrama than horror, although the final scene is a bit grim. Aesthetically, it is an absolute treat.
There are themes and then there are subtexts and I still have not been able to work through the complexities. Identity, superstition, hierarchical power, revenge, insanity, homoeroticism, gaslighting, man’s relationship with nature, secrets and lies (“Why d’ya spill your beans?” The list goes on. One review said that Wake’s angst over Winslow’s criticism of his cooking of a lobster is a metaphor for his penile prowess and there are hints of sexual tension (“yer fond of me lobster ain’t ye?”) but that didn’t really come through too strongly for me. There is a stressful love/hate, father/son relationship that holds menace on both sides throughout.
I mentioned the hauntological aspects and stand by this: there are echoes of the Shining. We learn that madness caused the death of Winslow’s predecessor and the presence of his erstwhile foreman as a spectre haunts him. Also time is very ambiguous and always seemingly out of joint. “How long have we been on this rock? Five weeks? Two days? Where are we? Help me to recollect.” Both men are haunted by their past and the latent implication of what that may do to destabilise the future is a constant threat. I would argue that alcoholism is also spectral in this. Pattinson’s character is living with ghosts having too recently given up the booze.
This is a really brave movie, beautifully executed. The format (almost 1:1) creates a sense of claustrophobia and of information being hidden from us. The grainy monochrome and fog obfuscates too. We never discover why Dafoe’s character strips naked in front of the lighthouse beam (his “finer, truer, quieter wife than any alive-blooded woman”) every night or whether the mermaid was just a dead body. Mysterious and thought-provoking with gothic eye-candy, a Shakespearean script and incredible acting. What more can one ask from a movie?