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Thoughts on The Lighthouse

But more wonderful than the lore of old men and the lore of books is the secret lore of ocean.


Darkness lies within all of us. And if there’s one thing that brings it out perfectly it’s loneliness and isolation.
Let’s dive deeper into: The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

Director: Robert Eggers
Writer: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers
Year: 2019
Country: America, Canada

Ephraim Winslow – Robert Pattinson
Thomas Wake – Willem Dafoe

Length: 110 min

Plot Summary

Where and how do I start?
What is actually happening in this movie is actually hard to grasp and even harder to describe. To this day I am not quite sure what I actually witnessed.
That is part of the experience though. So I recommend you still keep an open mind.
This is why I will only give a very short, very rudimentary summary:

A young man takes a job with a reclusive lighthouse keeper all the way out at sea. The men don’t necessarily get along. The rough forces of nature, as well as the isolation, don’t necessarily make life easier and soon weird things start happening: Mermaids and dead birds and the weird seductive calling of the light …

Spoilers may be inevitable!


One visual aspect of this movie that isn’t particularly hard to miss: It’s black and white!

Most people I know would probably – in some way or another – react negatively to a modern movie completely filmed in black and white. And that it is including my fellow media studies students (Not all of them, obviously, since I went to see the movie with two others). It gives the movie an antiquated feel and that is something a lot of people would probably associate with boredom.

Black and white – An antiquated concept?

Why? Well, it could be due to the fact that we are very much used to seeing what in the olden times would be referred to as “talkies”. We’re used (diegetic) sounds: Dialogue, Foley, Ambience … It’s all part of the experience. We’re so used in fact, we seem to forget that film is a visual medium in the end. Sound should not be necessary to understand what’s going on… It does make the experience more exciting – I think great sound design is an art form in and of itself! – but it also makes the experience more comfortable. You don’t have to exhaust your eyes watching … You can just listen and get on with other things. I am very guilty of this as well: Right now, I am “listening” to youtube videos in the background.

But at times it feels as if we’re not able to deal with movies that are still very much visual and visual only. They are not boring per se but they are harder to watch because you actually have to watch them!

So naturally, I admire filmmakers going against the grain (That and I am also a pretentious and petty bitch).

Let’s talk about sound first …

As already stated: The lighthouse is filmed entirely in black and white. And looking back on it: It doesn’t have much of non-diegetic sound (not much music), and not much of diegetic sound either. There is very few dialogue – at least for the most part – and the whole island seems to be bathed in silence. This makes the sounds there are – the spoken words, the specific tones assigned to specific symbols – so much more powerful.

One can never produce anything as terrible and impressive as one can awesomely hint about.

H.P. Lovecraft

… and get back to colours later.

But that is not the only pair of masterfully used contrast you notice when watching The Lighthouse.
To get back to what I was actually hinting at: Black and White. Light and Dark.
I like the vintage vibes of this movie. I really do. It fits in perfectly. I also feel like the black and white look gives it – surprisingly enough – more depth. Due to information being missing – colour – and the film being visual in nature – again: You have to really watch! – it demands the viewers’ attention. At all times. And even if you’re always watching: There’s still a chance you might miss a lot.

One very important symbol throughout the film is the lighthouse’s light. Pattinson’s character is not allowed anywhere near it, yet it seems to call him. Dafoe’s character seems to protect it with his life.
Due to there being no colour the contrast in light and dark speaks so much louder and clearer.
In particularly dark or bright scenes there is almost no information on the screen at all. We’re blind or blinded, just like the characters. Light – as it so often does – does not bring clearness or knowing to a situation. It makes it even harder to grasp.

Burly Men at Sea

Most of us would probably consider it a good thing. A great thing even. Some of us would probably conflate it with sex (Which … Boo! You can be intimate without being literally intimate!).
It means being open with somebody. Having someone who knows aver tiny thing about you. Someone you can be yourself with … Complete and utter intimacy … also means being completely bare. Completely naked. Easy to attack. Having nowhere to hide.
And soon intimacy turns rotten, spoilt. Especially when forced upon you: Your parents entering your room unannounced, a roommate without boundaries, sharing a room in a hostel, a partner that’s a little too attentive … You’re stuck. Can’t leave, can’t hide, can’t lie. You’re being forced into intimacy with a person you barely know and soon the relationship turns toxic.

The process of delving into the black abyss is to me the keenest form of fascination.

H.P. Lovecraft

When two men live all alone on an island, caught thee by a storm, bound together … Things are about to get ugly.
The relationship between the two lighthouse keepers does not start well and it does not end well either.
Just like the ocean’s waves, there are ups and downs in between. Sometimes they seem to even grow together, form a bond. Friends? Father and Son? Lovers? Yet every bit of positivity, friendship, openness seems to shred itself sooner or later.
Being forced to be open with each other makes these men grow further apart … And soon it is unsure whether they ever even met…

We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.

H.P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft and the Ocean

There is something quite Lovecraftian about this movie: Whether it’s the old-timey look – as if the movie sprung from a different time – the secret horrors, always lurking, or the ocean: An all-powerful force all too prevalent.

Tales of outsiders

Lovecraft used to say about himself that he felt as if he were born into the wrong time. A feeling some of us – especially us artsy types – can somewhat relate to … Being born into the wrong time. Around the wrong people. How could life have turned out if that weren’t the case? If we were just a little bit luckier.
This feeling of not fitting in is something your average Lovecraft scholar may be well aware of: Not only have they felt it (I mean why were you reading good old H.P. in the first place?) but they are also well aware of it being a very prevalent theme in most of his tales. Stories of outsiders that are incredibly hard to pinpoint time-wise.

The Lighthouse already feels very Lovecraftian in that regard. The black-and-white look, the minimalist sound design, the lighthouse motive … All of that gives it an incredible vintage feel. Whilst other movies this year went all out with CGI, epic scores, massive costumes … All of those things, trying to prove how forwards, how modern, how on-trend they are … This one stays quiet. It is an outsider amongst other stories and it seems to have been made years back; yet that’s what makes it so charming.

Not only is it an outsider amongst its contemporaries … It is also the story of two outsiders.
Both men have secrets; They both don’t seem to find solace in each other; And they both are completely cut off from all of society.

Insanity in the Water

Also a very Lovecraftian motive. He loved to isolate his protagonists socially and locally as well … But that surely is not all:
All throughout the film, Robert Pattinson’s Winslow seems to fall deeper and deeper into madness and insanity: At first, it seems to be just him adjusting to the new situation: A new job, new people, new location… It all seems less than ideal. The further the film progresses the deeper we dive into the craziness until we wonder whether everything we just witnessed was anywhere near true or whether it was all just a fever dream.

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

H.P. Lovecraft

You start to wonder: What is real? Is this just a nightmare dreamt up by a lonely man? Is one guy trying to gaslight the other into insanity – we have Willem Dafoe’s character hinting at different symbols all throughout the movie? Or is there really something unknown, something deeper, scarier … yes, even something of cosmic proportions hiding beneath the waves? What if it’s the ocean’s doing? What if something is hiding behind the light? Simply blinding humanity, acting like a guide through the darkness but in the end simply leading us towards it.

Into the unknown

Winslow finally finds a way to get to the light in the lighthouse – something that had been forbidden all throughout – simply for it to have tentacles reaching out towards him … Maybe that’s nothing more than the images ripped from an insane man’s had or maybe it’s much more. Maybe the unknown finally got what it wanted: Like an anglerfish, it managed to lure its prey and is now finally able to devour it. We will never know, just as we will never know whether or not we are being watched by something similarily sinister at this very moment.
Which is what gave both Lovecraft’s stories and this movie its intrigue and it’s scary potential.

Fear is our deepest and strongest emotion, and the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions.

H.P. Lovecraft

There’s nothing particularly scary whilst watching (or reading), the true horror comes from thinking about it. From being alone with your thoughts. From being alone with the unknown.
Some of the situations may even seem so bizarre that they may almost be funny at first glance.
And comedy and horror are very similar if you think about it: Both are a form of catharsis, both have victims and both deal with deep and dark fears of humankind. They’re just different in their way of going about it.
And the lighthouse could have very well been a comedy with me just missing the point.

The Shadow over The Lighthouse

One Lovecraft story I felt particularly reminded of while watching The Lighthouse was The Shadow over Innsmouth.
With the latter being one of the first Lovecraft stories I have ever read I must confess: I have some very specific feelings of love and nostalgia for it. I remember listening to it on my way through Newzealand, driving along the rough cliffs and steel-blue ocean.

In the said story, our protagonist finds himself in the oceanside town of Innsmouth. The town itself does not seem particularly extraordinary at first glance but turns out quite peculiar on the second.
You see, for decades the women of Innsmouth have been “breeding” with mysterious ocean-dwelling creatures to better their offspring. Said ocean-dwellers are very close to what we would probably consider gods.
The children springing from said relationships – however strong and powerful they may be – do not come without dangers …

I’m gonna stop now. I can only recommend you read that story yourself, you can do so here.

The siren

I feel like at this point I should talk about the mermaid. And well … her mermaid vagina. If that is not enough of a hint to you, here’s on: The following paragraph(s) may get a little graphic. I’ll be talking about themes of sex and consent. If you do not feel equipped to be confronted with these topics – DO NOT CONTINUE READING. I’ll add a pointer to where you can go on, in case you want to finish this post.

Winslow finds a little mermaid-statuette between the sheets of his predecessor and decides to keep it. Later in the film, he seems to be haunted by apparitions of said mermaid herself. It is not sure, whether she truly does exist – is she more of a siren, playing tricks on his mind or just a mere figment of his imagination? She pops up a couple of times around the film, always seeming to be somewhat stranded on land, helpless, unable to breathe or talk or communicate in any other way. She seems to be trapped, just like the protagonists.
Again: Is she truly there? If yes, is she as helpless, as she seems? Or is all of this just a trick, to lure him in? An illusion, sent by the unknown to further its goal?

The world is indeed comic, but the joke is on mankind.

H.P. Lovecraft

Towards the end of the movie – the situation is (slowly) escalating – he is shown having sex with the mermaid. At least we’re supposed to think so. Again, intimacy and loneliness are prevalent themes. And a lot of people conflate intimacy with sex.

It is kind of interesting and weird, though: The mermaid is shown to have an opening (cue Awkward-Lilly now) where a human woman would. All throughout the act, she doesn’t really seem to show any interest in it at all (neither does he by the way) it seems to be almost painful to her. And indeed: It’s worlds colliding.
Now, I’m not sure about the consent of this situation. It doesn’t fully seem to be a wanted occurrence … And it is very uncomfortable to watch. There is nothing positive or romanticized about it and it only further promotes the fall into madness.

Disclaimer over. You should be able to read on now.

But is it even happening? We’re never sure whether the siren is even real. And it is a very interesting choice indeed, looking at it historically: The idea of the mermaid (at least over here in the west) originates from sailors’ stories. They’d see sea-dwelling creatures such as manatees or dolphins – which from afar would almost seem like humans with fins attached – and their lonesome minds would turn them into unreachable but beautiful women.
It’s a myth created my lonely and horny men that in and of itself blends reality into fantasy. Sounds familiar?

It’s also what really made my mind go to The Shadow over Innsmouth while watching The Lighthouse.
Humans and Fish-People procreating. Winslow in this situation does not care about consequence – all aside from wondering whether this situation is real or not. He is messing with powers he cannot comprehend and he may have just brought the first stone rolling … Or he may have not.
Nothing matters anymore.

The Lighthouse – Senseless sense

In the end, I still don’t know what to make of The Lighthouse. It was an experience and I feel like I should watch it again … But it doesn’t seem to make it into my list of personal favourites.
Maybe that’ll change after a few more watches? Maybe I’ll find something to make everything be more coherent … Because like many people’s: my mind does not like to be in distress. It would like to peace things together perfectly.
And maybe that’s the true strength of this movie: To show us how little it takes to introduce a little bit of insanity into our lives.

Imagination is a very potent thing, and in the uneducated often usurps the place of genuine experience.

H.P. Lovecraft

Want to read more?

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Hidden Gems – The Cave
Travel Stories Panama: Portobelo

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