Consider long and consider well precisely what sort of movie experience you are hoping for, before you press play on The Lighthouse. Are you anticipating a fun summer romp, something perhaps with supernatural under/overs and if you’re really lucky and have been very good this year, maybe someone with a hook for a hand, or a murderous fog, or at very least, an ancient curse? Bad news, friend, you’re getting none of that (though there is a vague, wafting patina of a curse – but we’ll get to that later). But does that mean we should throw our hands up, proclaim all lost, and abandon this humble little film about a true and pretty genuinely strange event to the debris and detritus of the great cinema stomping grounds in the sky? No, my dears, I am happy to report, there is a silver lining to this tale (I shouldn’t have started out so alarmist, I apologize) and that is: that along with some genuine production values, The Lighthouse is an ambitious two hander that may not quite succeed at all it attempts, but develops genuine atmosphere and features some pretty great performances.
On the subject of those performances, I found that while watching the movie, I kept referring to both characters in both my head and my notes as “Angry Brendan Gleeson” and “Sad Brendan Gleeson.” Because they both look like Brendan Gleeson, if that wasn’t abundantly clear. I thought for the sake of clarity, I should find their characters’ names, and discovered that both characters are named Thomas. So if you’ll indulge me, I’m sticking to the Gleesons. Our story begins with the Brendan Gleesons being rowed out to a lighthouse, isolated and essentially stranded. The boat that delivered them has left, and they know they are to remain to tend the lighthouse for a determinate period of time, alone together with only their limited resources and, a chess board, and some loudly telegraphed lingering hostility to fill the time. The aggressive posturing of Angry Gleeson weighed against the obsequious gestures of Sad Gleeson make it pretty easy to deduct the source of the lingering tension, but I’ll not give it away here, as it is approached and handled as a reveal, and I respect the process. As anyone versed in cabin fever/space madness movies could predict, a rip roarin’ storm comes through and deepens their isolation, while raising the stakes. Ships can’t get to them, and they have only enough supplies to carry them through a specifically charted period of time. They tend to the lighthouse and bicker, until (and call this a spoiler if you’re so inclined, using that knowledge accordingly) Angry Gleeson dies. And while Mark Lewis Jones (he of the House Angry Gleeson) is very good at being surly and somber, it is after his death that Michael Jibson (our sad friend), really shines. And shit, does he shine. There are components of this movie I’m going to kvetch about – meet me in the next paragraph if you simply can’t wait – but his performance is none of them. It is hard to act against no one, and he portrays the brutal descent into madness extremely well; expanding a character who had been small and internal to a warped mirror of the storm around him. He begins to take on characteristics of Angry Gleeson, making himself his own torturer and refusing himself any small moment of relief. It is an awe inspiring performance.
The Venn diagram of the movie, however, allows that its greatest strength is also one of its most potent weaknesses. It is ambitious. For being presented in a way that could easily be adapted as a stage play, The Lighthouse is busy. It’s bustling with ideas of punishment and redemption and the inability to escape the things we carry with us. This is heady stuff, and it almost all comes rushing at the audience in a third act that is crammed to almost the point of distraction. The movie moves deliberately for the first two acts (the pacing has the potential to be a divisive component. I will call it intentional, an attempt to express the mundanity and dullness of being stranded with little to do to pass the time. Others will undoubtedly simply lose interest), and then, rather abruptly, goes kind of batshit insane. I had initially thought there was the possibility that both Gleesons were actually just one Dissociative Gleeson, having a bit of a breakdown; that is the sort of movie it began as. The final act is a barrage of Sad Gleeson just going stone cold out of his mind. Which is fine. I am here for that. My complaint in that regard is simply that it did not feel to me like the necessary aspects of dread were built up enough to warrant his reaction. We needed to feel more deeply what this reality felt like to him; how it presented, and what of it gave him the soul deep piss shivers.
Perhaps the most squandered opportunity here is that the true story The Lighthouse is based on is pretty fucking weird in and of itself. The skeletal parts remain; two men were stranded in a lighthouse, one died, and the other tied his body up outside the lighthouse, with the wind knocking his loose hand against the wall, so that the survivor kept hearing post mortem knocking through the storm. This is pretty bleak shit. It doesn’t require embellishment or a tragic, tortured backstory.
Nevertheless, The Lighthouse commends itself. There are interesting ideas, and some very pretty production, and two performances that truly earn their Gleesons. It isn’t fun, but it is worth a watch.