Wednesday, September 27, 2023
film and tv

Feature: The Lighthouse vs. The Witch: close quarters descent of the mind

The Lighthouse, the second feature from Robert Eggers premiered at Cannes to rave reviews. Much like his first feature, The Witch, his new film explores folklore through the lens of declining mental health.

I have done my best to avoid spoilers but you may want to experience both of these films with no prior information. In which case: avoid this article.

Since premiering at Sundance Film Festival in 2015, The Witch has received universal acclaim. Whilst the marketing of the film suggested a scare-fest the film itself avoids genre conventions to tap into something scarier: a descent into madness. The claustrophobic setting and intense character traits are offset with a slow burn pacing and controlled artistic vision, substituting jump scares and question marks over the titular witch to instead hold a microscope to the domestic unease and religious doubt cast over the characters.

This is a technique Eggers has similarly applied to The Lighthouse. The excitement for the film at Cannes reached a fever pitch, with people queuing for hours and hours just to feel the same dread as his previous work. However, though The Lighthouse has gotten a tremendous reception from critics, it may be even less of a straight up horror than The Witch. Fortunately, that’s not to say it’s any less scary.

Again with The Lighthouse we find find ourselves with very few characters within a small setting, this time switching a New England puritan settlement for a lighthouse on a remote island. We meet Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson’s character as they come ashore the island and settle down to man the lighthouse.

YouTube video

It quickly becomes apparent that Pattinson will play the buttoned-up newbie that has to answer to Dafoe’s orders, however ridiculous they are. Dafoe’s veteran sailor-cum-lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake, acts as the host to the cramped conditions, and, like Ralph Ineson’s William in The Witch, Wake’s authority cannot be questioned. Where Ineson would use the true word of God to justify all his actions, Wake uses his experience as a seaman. His loud, grisly voice delivers nautical wisdom as something that must be accepted as gospel. How can he know better than Wake? How could Ineson’s family know better than the word of God?

This is something that tests the characters in both films. Ineson’s family are isolated but believe it is for the betterment of their religious mission in life. It’s only later on that we begin to see Thomasin’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) ambivalence to her pious family’s beliefs. But Pattinson’s character, Ephraim Winslow, isn’t with Wake for theological reasons and never sees him as a spiritual authority, just a boss. Winslow’s questioning comes from a place of feeling exploited and repressed. When he is denied the duty of tending to the lighthouse’s light he wonders whether or not Wake has something to hide and these continued denials, even after weeks of intense labour, frustrate Winslow.

Thomasin’s frustrations with her father come from a seemingly more dangerous place. His faith in God appears to her to be structurally unsound. How can she believe in a God when their crops are dying and they’re unable to bare the fruits of hunting missions? Maybe her father’s incompetence is the reason behind their misfortune? This assumption from Thomasin leaves her in an isolation of her own, walled off by her family’s religious reasoning. These become the main factors of peril for our two main characters.

There is a point early on in The Lighthouse where Wake uses superstition to weedle his way into Winslow’s psyche: claiming that it is bad luck to kill a seabird and that they contain the souls of seamen. Winslow has several run-ins with an irritating one-eyed seagull, seemingly targeting Winslow as he goes about his daily chores. A particularly pointed fracas with the seagull leads to a downward spiral of paranoia for Pattinson’s character. Wake’s mythical superstition delivered with seafaring certainty puts Winslow in a position whereby he can attribute all his bad luck to one incident with a bird.

YouTube video

This theme of the embodiment of paranoia in animals is also explored in The Witch’s goat Black Phillip. Black Phillip’s presence on the settlement is seen as more than just animalistic by Thomasin and her young twin siblings. When the idea of a witch is raised by Mercy (Ellie Grainger) it is suggested that talking to Black Phillip is a sign that you’re doing dealings with Satan. Thomasin makes the mistake of humouring her sister’s fear and Black Phillip is used as a rod with which to beat Thomasin later on. Again, the rest of the family take this spiritual reasoning as the truth when there is very little else to use as evidence for Thomasin’s innocence.

It could be argued that these are the beginnings of mental health taking a hold on our protagonists. Eggers seems to thrive on seeing how mental health may have been portrayed in these periods. Ultimately, a puritanical belief in God and a lifetime of stranded superstition have no good explanation for how easily our minds can experience poor health, instead suggesting that the reasons for such “madness” are Satanic and immoral.

This initial snapping of something inside of us can then only escalate with isolation and denial of desires. In The Witch the eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) is possessed by two urges: to know what is beyond the forest, and a pubescent, sexual curiosity heightened by the presence of his older sister. Though this sexual curiosity is only touched upon visually by Eggers it manifests itself into something scary. When Caleb goes beyond where he knows and is given a glimpse of what it is his teenage inquisitiveness seeks, he’s met by something we’re unsure is real. 

Winslow’s desires are far less ambiguous. As an adult man, stranded on an island for god knows how long, he reaches a sexual frustration that I don’t think has been caught on film with such horror before. His stimulation is served less by curiosity than Caleb’s and is instead restricted to the dehumanised toy figure of a mermaid. This severe lack of human interaction with anyone but the dirty, farting, filthy bearded Wake (like an intensified Horatio McCallister in Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror) plays with Winslow’s mind.

Winslow inevitably gets to a point where his sexual frustration compromises his work ethic, something that his host would see as unforgivable. The larger desire for Winslow though may be the desire to man the light. As Wake defensively sits atop the lighthouse all day while Winslow shovels coal, cleans the floors and paints the lighthouse, his frustration with Wake’s selfishness increases. The refusal to let him go as high as the light or even to give him a reason why niggles away at Winslow, making the mystery ever more enticing.

YouTube video

All these factors confined by the small spaces of the lighthouse and the settlement amplify the feelings of paranoia, desire and ultimately fear. With The Lighthouse these feelings are also projected onto the audience, subjecting them to a sense of panic and apprehension. Shot in squared black and white on 35mm, the film really puts you in the lighthouse with the characters, feeling like a third, non-contributing member at the dinner table, ducking out the way of insults and a shower of food and drink. Eggers talks of a musty, dusty, crusty, rusty environment and we feel every bit of stone and dirty in each frame.

All these visual assaults on the audience are backed up by the weight of its pounding, grinding and screeching score, making for a truly oppressive experience. I left the cinema with a primal reaction to the film. Something beyond articulating criticism where I knew I’d seen something I loved without enjoying very much of the film at all. If that’s not horrific, I’m not sure what is.

With The Witch and now The Lighthouse, Eggers has managed to produce two near perfect visions of cabin fever. Enrobed in his obsession with folklore (something he says he is more interested in than film) he has managed to create something specific in detail, adding to the cinematic conditions he provides us with. His portrayal of mouthpieces for fears of times gone by are truly terrifying, and the embodiment of these fears are done justice by performances from Ralph Ineson and Willem Dafoe, Dafoe in particular, who is maybe at his best in here.

Both films manage to culminate into something sinister and stirring, the consequences of which are brought on by our character’s mental instability. The constant fraught nature of the relationships that Eggers builds, confined in their remote surroundings is something that neither character nor audience can escape. Eggers’ craft has been refined again in his latest, and I can only imagine another nightmare is on the cards.

The Lighthouse is scheduled to be released in the U.S. on October 18th. When we’ll be lucky enough to savour its wicked fruits in the UK is unclear. 

Like this? Try these…

Harry Jones

Long and incompetent man who is being allowed to write about films you can watch from your bed.