I think I picked an interesting time to see this movie. Actually, the timing was due to the alignment of my schedule and that of a friend I saw it with. Judging by the previews, The Lighthouse looked like one of those movies that my husband would appreciate for its quality while not at all enjoying the experience of watching it (which was his reaction to The Witch, David Eggers’s previous film). I prefer to see movies with company, and this particular friend had expressed interest in seeing it. So we went.
But I had just come off of an intensive weekend of ritual work that had been expressly designed to hack the participants’ subconscious. It was even partly informed by ancient Greek myth and religious belief, which is also present in The Lighthouse in both implicit and explicit form (maybe you think Willem Dafoe’s character is just being poetic when he calls on Triton to levy a curse upon Robert Pattinson, but for all the character’s questionable accounting of himself he looks sincere as hell in that scene). So while there’s a leap toward the end that doesn’t quite land for me (an issue that I also had with The Witch), I also didn’t spend as much time as some viewers did (if Twitter is any indication) wondering what the hell was going on.
Not that you need to be an expert classicist to appreciate The Lighthouse. I think you just have to be prepared to go along with a claustrophobically subjective viewpoint, and accept that whatever the objective reality of the situation might be, it’s really not the point here. (Part of me wanted the long-delayed ferry to show up in the final scene, like Fortinbras at the end of Hamlet. Probably wouldn’t have added anything to the story, ultimately.)
But while I’m not the only one to observe some ancient Greek threads running through the movie (ancient Greece having been, after all, a maritime culture, with much of its religious and superstitious thought bending toward the sea and its dangers), while I’ve seen mention of Proteus and Prometheus in various places, I found myself thinking not only of Poseidon, as one might expect, but also of Hekate. Or perhaps Artemis. And maybe a bit of Charon as well.
One of the things I’ve dug into over the years is the way ancient Greeks thought about borders. It seems odd in our current reality of a world divided up into nations with firm boundaries, sometimes with walls or fences built along them, but in earlier eras a country or kingdom was something more like an area of geographic influence. This indicates a vaguer and more porous boundary than we probably think of today, and the ancient Greek sense of liminality, of in-between and uncanny places, seems to be manifest in this idea. Artemis or Hekate, who were sometimes conflated, had their sacred places located at edges: at the furthest reach of a king’s influence, at an entrance or doorway, at the intersection of two roads. And, notably, at harbors. Both were also frequently portrayed carrying torches; in the case of Hekate, this rendition is so iconic that modern-day depictions rarely show her without them. To me, watching this movie after I’d had a headful of Hekate for two straight days, a lighthouse standing in a place often beset by fog and storm, from which no other land or people were visible, was the very quintessence of that uncanny liminality that the Greeks found so concerning. (The uncanniness of crossroads in mythology and folklore persists to this day: consider the legend of Robert Johnson, for instance.) There’s also the importance of locks and keys in this movie, something else reminiscent of Hekate.
It’s also possible, though it feels like a cheat, that this is one of those stories where the characters have been dead the whole time and are playing through some sort of afterlife drama. There’s the arrival on the boat, to a rather grim and featureless place, and the characters’ conflicting accounts of their personal histories could be read as the loss of memory that is a feature of the ancient Greek afterlife. In this reading the moonshine they drink in ever-escalating quantities become the waters of Lethe, of which the dead drank to forget their lives. The movie’s final shot rather supports this interpretation as well.
Do I think Eggers had all this in mind when making The Lighthouse? Maybe, maybe not. It kind of doesn’t matter. This is the kind of movie you can bring your own stuff to, and view what’s happening through multiple lenses–something that does seem to be the filmmaker’s intention, given the nature of the film’s climactic moment where the lighthouse’s Fresnel lens finally, perhaps, yields its secrets. Another friend who’s seen it said that they were going to call what’s commonly referred to as gaslighting lighthousing from now on, given that one of the grounds being contested between the two characters in the film is whose reality is going to win. You can interpret the mermaids, the weather, the behavior of the seagulls (downright Hitchcockian at times), the characters’ accounting of their personal histories, and the occasional cephalic tentacle in multiple ways from the concretely literal to the subjectively figurative, and the ability to shift along this axis while you’re watching the movie strikes me as one of its notable accomplishments.
And even if none of that works for you–and I’ve seen plenty of reactions indicating that it doesn’t–there’s Dafoe’s magnificent scenery-chewing, and Pattinson’s managing to hold his own against it most of the time. Most reviews that I’ve seen say this is Dafoe’s movie, and I think they’re right, but if your impression of Pattinson’s acting ability is primarily informed by the Twilight series, then you’ve really missed what he’s capable of.
All that said, when I got home after the movie I told my husband that he’d been right not to come, and that he wouldn’t have liked The Lighthouse at all. Come to that, I personally can’t say whether I’d describe my experience of watching it as enjoyment, either. But it’s an intriguing, uncanny, and beautifully constructed piece of work, and if you’re into ancient Greece personally or professionally, that’s an additional reason to give it a look.