The Lighthouse and The Cinema of Encapsulation
“Nothing good happens when two men are left alone in a giant phallus”
– Robert Eggers
The Lighthouse is a miniature masterpiece about the terror of encapsulation. It’s the story of a pair of “wickies”, played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, who arrive at a rocky island to relive another team of keepers. For the duration of their watch, their universe will be the shack where they live, the house, and its light. The two settle into a routine, with the senior, Thomas (Dafoe) asserting his authority over the junior, Ephraim (Pattinson). They settle into a routine of maintaining the light, shoveling coal, and emptying chamber pots. Without warning a violent storm assaults their island. Surrounded by fog and pummeled by constant wind and rain, they have only their tiny shelter and each other until the weather calms. Days pass without relief. Unable to leave the island, trapped in their small, confining rooms, they begin to turn on each other as their wits, perceptions of time, and maybe even their own identities, begin to shatter. Is this a normal storm that will eventually subside? Or is it a curse of bad luck brought on because one of the men killed a gull before their last day “off the rock”?
I saw this film in Austin, TX as a Secret Screening at Fantastic Fest. Director Robert Eggers was present, and during the Q&A provided insight into the movie, its cast, and his working method. His quote that opens this review summarizes the story’s basic structure. If we omit a brief appearance by a mermaid, which may or may not be Ephraim’s hallucination, this movie has only two actors. Both are male. They are alone and eventually stranded. And they’re living in the shadow of a giant penis symbol. (All of this is rich mulch for some post-viewing discussion over coffee around same sex power struggles, but it’s not what most interests me about this movie.)
The Lighthouse is a more complex and skillful film than Eggers’ previous effort, The Witch. Its narrative is much less linear and literal. There’s very little gore or physical violence. It confronts you with images you can only interpret as metaphorical, supernatural, surreal, or all three of these at once. Some of the viewers at the Secret Screening seemed disappointed by this. If you’re going into this movie, expecting a straight ahead horror film, you’ll be left high and dry. Like the wind and rain at its core, this is a film that won’t meet you half way, it braces you with its performances, its sound, and its fury. What follows are the themes, sources, and techniques which are my personal reflections on The Lighthouse, and may enhance the enjoyment of the movie.
The Cinema of Encapsulation
Astronauts sealed inside a capsule. Sailors cocooned in a submarine. Families stuck in a familiar, or unfamiliar place, by a snowstorm or other calamity. In each case, the main characters are enclosed within a small, confining environment because to leave it would expose them to extreme danger or death. There are many films that use this story framework and could all be called part of the “cinema of encapsulation.”They usually progress beyond the physical threats outside a particular capsule to the drama of people in close confinement.The psychological pressure builds as escape becomes less and less certain.The best films of this type make viewers feel as if they’re trapped inside the movie with the characters.The Shining is a good example. Jack Torrance and his family are encapsulated within the Overlook Hotel by a blizzard.They may as well be in outer space or at the bottom of the ocean. It makes no difference. As Jack’s mental state devolves, Wendy and Danny have nowhere to go. It’s dangerous both outside and inside. The common widescreen aspect ratio for most movies is 1.85:1. This means that the screen is almost twice as wide as it is tall. In The Shining, Kubrick used more of square shaped screen with a film shot in 1.37:1 but framed for 1.66:1. The result is that the sides of film image seem to close in on the characters, adding to a sense of dread and enclosure. (But more on Kubrick later.)
In The Lighthouse, Eggers’ technical skill is impressive as he uses screen framing and sound to express the encapsulation of Thomas and Ephraim. The screen ratio chosen for The Lighthouse takes the square frame approach even further. During the Q&A the director mentioned G. W. Pabst’s Kameradschaft, a tale of French miners caught in a mine collapse, as an inspiration.This 1931 movie had an aspect ratio of 1.19:1 – almost a perfect square. When combined with The Lighthouse’s rich black and white photography, the result on screen is almost like looking through a window pane into the lives of the two wickies. We’re sitting at their table, or looking over their shoulders, part of the action yet also distanced from it.It’s no accident that segmented panes resembling the film’s aspect ratio can be seen throughout the film. The use of music and sound is another achievement. At times, both of these seem to spill out of the screen. They engulf the characters and surround the audience. Eggers mentioned that he wanted music that “hearkened back to Bernard Hermann,” the great composer of Welles and Hitchcock. The resulting score is expressive, oppressing, and unrelenting. This is a movie that must be seen in a theatre with a quality projection and sound system for its artistry, and its methods of audience encapsulation, to be fully experienced.
The Lighthouse as Mellville’s White Whale
Any story set in the 1800’s dealing with American sailors and the sea will naturally lead to associations with Herman Melville. Willem Dafoe’s character of Thomas, wearing a full grey beard and mustache, resembles an aging version of the author. In Moby Dick and other novels, Melville often set his tiny human characters against the larger forces of nature.
One of the dangers facing a sailor in the 1800’s was to find themselves becalmed. When a ship is becalmed it cannot move due to a lack of wind. Until nature frees them, sailors are stranded together, at sea, with no escape. In his 1855 novella, Benito Cereno, Melville tells the story of a Spanish slave trader that is becalmed for weeks off Cape Horn. In this kind of story, although some of its physical motion has narrowed, the opportunity for psychological, or even supernatural conflict expands. In both Benito Cereno and The Lighthouse, this situation becomes a catalyst for human-sized drama. Although Thomas and Ephraim are on an island that can never move, due to the weather they find themselves becalmed. Until the storm lifts they aren’t going anywhere. Ironically they have plenty of wind –they just lack a ship and a sail. In these stories by Melville and Eggers, characters that are “becalmed” often end up anything but “calm” in the end.
Kubrick and Seclusion
During his first career as a still photographer for national magazines, Stanley Kubrick honed his ability to shape and capture ideas in pictures. Criticized for what some perceived to be a detached, clinical approach to storytelling, no one can deny that his movies contain imagery that has over time become iconic. To cite just one example, long tracking shots up and down hallways or corridors feature in Paths of Glory, 2001, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining. This kind of tracking shot is then used by other directors, in the context of different stories, to evoke a similar feeling for not only a film’s particular geography but also the solitude of its main character. In this way, filmmakers leverage and expand upon the language of movies.
In The Shining the Torrance family is buried in the Overlook by a snowstorm. As in The Lighthouse, the director’s choice of framing boxes them inside the screen. Another film technique Eggers’ borrows from Kubrick is a quick, jarring cut from a realistic part of the story to the supernatural. Kubrick uses this editing technique when Danny “shines”: We see the boy’s face, then cut quickly to what he experiences in his psychic fugue without dissolves or super-impositions. The Lighthouse presents some of its unnatural events in a similar way – smacking its audience in the face visually, without any preparation.
2001 literally encapsulates its astronauts. Bowman and Poole travel through space in the pressurized Discovery spaceship. Under normal circumstances, neither one of them can leave without special equipment and only for a short time. In the middle section of 2001 enclosures are everywhere: spaceships, moon buses, hibernation sarcophagi, space suits, and excursion pods. Eggers saves some of his best borrowing from Kubrick’s image portfolio for the last part of The Lighthouse, where one of the keepers seems to be entering the light house’s beacon itself. The light’s housing is a visual analogy to one of 2001’s excursion pods, a comparison reinforced when a panel in it opens on its own, appearing to beckon the man to enter. He’s leaving one form of encapsulation for another. Like 2001 his trip might be one of liberation and transformation. (I’ll leave it up to each viewer to decide.)
The Lighthouse is an art film that borrows from the filmic language of the horrific and the weird. If you’re expecting The Witch 2.0 you might be frustrated or disappointed. It feels like a transitional work, with director Robert Eggers stretching his storytelling and artistic chops to see how far he can reach. If you care about the possibilities of American fantastic film, and you want to feel the full impact of Eggers’ vision, you need to rush out and support this movie by seeing it in a theatre.