Why are we still here, just to suffer? Should I really be surprised that someone who thinks The Rise of Skywalker is a 10/10 hates this movie. As much as I love to ham up my frustrations, I do see why discontent for this film exists. On the surface, The Lighthouse is a film about…well…umm…nothing? Robert Eggers crafts an utter nightmare in which Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) is trapped with Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) as the two try to stave off madness and hunger as they attend to a lighthouse in isolation. The cinematography is masterfully done Chiaroscuro and the aspect ratio and soundscape present an unnerving atmospheric claustrophobic-inducing tension throughout the entire experience. Eggers puts a heavy emphasis in studying dialect, giving his characters a unique texture to them.
Covering this film is a difficult beast to tackle, how do I convince the uninitiated to take interest in it without sounding like a an “idiotic film school reject”. Is there a way to convey the special quality of The Lighthouse without giving away the secrets the film? Besides, I don’t believe that an “ending explained” type of post, even does The Lighthouse justice because explaining away sequences and plot points to narrow lens dilutes the admiration I have for the abstract. As much as I could detail the parallels and connections with Proteus and Prometheus, the Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy, Cain and Abel, shared consciousness, repressed homosexuality, class disparity, purgatory, and the list goes on; that would make for a long post that admittedly wouldn’t feel like my own. As much as they intrigue me, none of them where what I recognized in film. To me the vagueness of the tale to fit multiple interpretations is the fascinating element. So to get you to either seek out The Lighthouse with an open mind, or better appreciate the film’s uniqueness we’re not going to talk about this film, but “The Lighthouse before The Lighthouse”. Hope you’re ready to discuss the origin of absurdity, because The Lighthouse is cinema’s Waiting for Godot.
Theatre of the Absurd
The Lighthouse appears to mimic the principles of the 1950’s Theatre of the Absurd. The term “Theatre of the Absurd” originated from Martin Esslin’s critique on post World War 2 theater. Esslin connected many works at the time of period as demonstrating a common irreverence, leaning into more surrealist depictions of reality. In the aftermath of a war that put the destruction of humanity on full display, the desire not for grounded reality and structure but for replacing it with aggressively peculiar pieces that searched internally to the many existential queries of the modern playwrights.
“The focal point of these dreams is often man’s fundamental bewilderment and confusion, stemming from the fact that he has no answers to the basic existential questions: why we are alive, why we have to die, why there is injustice and suffering“– Jerome P. Crabb
Absurdity has made for some great cinema, The Shining as well the works of Lynch and Kaufman are great examples without resorting to niche art house flicks. However, all of these keep a clear narrative through line intact and typically demonstrate traditional plot progression. The Lighthouse on the other hand appears to full embrace the absurdist model and abandon the normal sense of progression. The isolation endured by Howard and Wake becomes all the more formidable, as the audience is forced to wait for the story to resume at indiscernible intervals. If the boxy aspect ratio feels constrictive, and the plot seems to move at a snail’s pace… that’s kind of the point.
This movement, and The Lighthouse by extension are committed to posing as both an escape from reality as well as burden you with it. Absurd-ism detaches itself from the concept of rules and logic, and by shedding them presents a cathartic well to free flowing interpretation and analysis. At the same time, the absurdist philosophy can be downright overbearing, asking too many questions hoping to haunt you with introspection of the meaning and purpose of pretty much everything and anything.
Waiting for Godot
“We wait. We are bored. No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it. Good. A diversion comes along and what do we do? We let it go to waste. …In an instant, all will vanish, and we’ll be alone once more, in the midst of nothingness.“– Vladimir
If any piece was a precursor for The Lighthouse, it’s Samuel Beckett’s unique and infamous Waiting for Godot. There is so much persistent speculation on this play, that there still seems to be heavy analysis into the title alone. Beckett is French so the titular characters name is pronounced “goDOH” (like Homer Simpson); however, this haven’t stopped many from addressing the character as “GODoh” given the main characters deity like devotion towards Godot.
I won’t lie, Waiting for Godot is a very dry piece in terms of following the “action” of the piece but it is one of the most rewarding food for thought media you’ll probably come across. I will effectively give a quick synopsis, so skip this next paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled.
Waiting for Godot is the story of Vladimir and Estragon as they wait in the lousiest production design, a blank nowhere land with only a tree in the background. Vladimir and Estragon pass the time with banter as they reveal their purpose is waiting for the arrival of Godot. Who’s Godot? I don’t know. When is he supposed to show up? Eventually. What relationship do these two have with Godot? I don’t know. It sounds like I’m not very well versed on the piece but no these are legitimately never explained, and you just got to deal with that. While waiting, a wealthy man Pozzo and his slave Lucky pass them by, and Pozzo gets Lucky to entertain them with his ability to think. Thinking causes Lucky to speak somewhat eloquently but also complete gibberish. Eventually a young boy comes along and regretfully informs them that Godot cancelled, no refunds but he will be stopping by to sign autographs tomorrow. The two wait the next day, the tree has spouted a couple of leaves and the two struggles to remember what transpired yesterday. Pozzo and Lucky come by again, except this time Pozzo is blind and fails to recall ever meeting the two. The boy or an identical boy who insists he wasn’t there yesterday informs them that Godot isn’t coming again. Estragon and Vladimir collectively decide that it’s time they leave and as the great comedic beat goes “they decide to leave. They do not move”.
I find The Lighthouse to be nearly identical to Waiting to Godot. Both feature two characters “trapped” in this realm of purgatory waiting for someone to come and relieve them from their static predicament. As you can see with Waiting for Godot, the main plot can easily be reduced to a paragraph. Yet, the value of the play in terms of theories, interpretations, and critical lens has almost been infinite. Chock-full of unexplained symbolism both have elements to drown yourself in.
Waiting for Godot: bowler hats, tree, the kid, Pozzo’s luggage, Lucky’s leash
The Lighthouse: seagulls, the light, mermaids, the foghorn
I won’t spoil the ending for The Lighthouse, but it is more eventful then the ending of Waiting for Godot. How insane is the ending of Godot, it’s a slow burn play leading up to nothing? It’s almost as if Citizen Kane had The Soprano’s ending. Of course, people are going to hate these, they challenge us as the audience to fill in the blanks, and to some all they see is empty holes. The contemptuous reputation is deserved to a degree, no one enjoys the Wizard of Oz because it’s an allegory for the gold standard, right? Waiting for Godot is a paradox set to a stage play, a play about hope presented as hopelessness. A representation of free-will, limiting them to a destined cycle. Time is presented as irrelevant, yet it is the only thing that pushes the narrative forward. Waiting for Godot is pretty much the Schrodinger’s cat of the stage, if the answer is never given does the answer even exist?
Ye Fond of me Review Ain’t Ye?
Robert Pattinson and Wilhelm Dafoe get into a contest to see who can give the most shocking performance of the year and oh boy do they both go for it. This is a point where a lesser reviewer would whine and say movie goers these days are so stupid and lazy…but that’s not the case at all. We have people who literally analyze every plot beat in a Star Wars movie or discover every tiny insignificant Easter egg found in Spider-Man. Movie goers aren’t stupid, they’re becoming more perceptive, critical and continue to have an increasing access to everyone’s opinions [even if they’re not always the most articulate like the ones we began with]. Not everyone is going to be willing to give the devotion to The Lighthouse, but I hope that those who are do find it.
I don’t like thinking my role here is to tell you what you “need” to see or even what exactly is “good”. There’s plenty of stuff circulating in existence you don’t need to see all the ones I personally like. I just present my honest interpretation of things and hopefully that gives you a better reference towards aligning your own tastes and you can decide to check it out or not. If you have, then hopefully I open you up to viewing it with new eyes or thoughts.
The Lighthouse is a film about nothing, and that’s not a bad thing. I admire how it serves as a true absurdist piece rivaling the genius and thought-provoking nature of Waiting for Godot. Dafoe has an incredible monologue and the film is constantly keeping you anxious about what could happen next. Trying to grasp the darkness that shrouds the truth is maddening, but sometimes the temptation beckons you towards the light.