Two Guys in a Lighthouse: What Could Go Wrong?

The sum total of what I knew before walking into the theater to see “The Lighthouse” last night: “Two guys in a lighthouse, and things go south.” Wasn’t hard to foresee a taut psychological thriller, full of insight into the difficulty of human relations set amidst the extreme conditions of solitude that residing in a lighthouse would bring. Count me in!

What I wasn’t ready for—and quickly had to steel my defenses against—was an unrelenting 109 minutes (felt like 109 hours…) of human misery, wretchedness, crudity, homoerotic violence, loud clanging noises from the lighthouse, loud farting noises from an ancient mariner’s lower orifice, flashbacks, hallucinations, guilt, desperate masturbation, mermaid sex, hostile seagulls, even more hostile seas, and having to look at Willem Dafoe’s artfully rotted teeth, which showed prominently behind the beard that often seemed to contain outsized shards of previously consumed meals, expectorations, and Lord-only-knows-what-other effluvia cast up from the dark maw of unmitigated human degradation.

No, a good time was not had by all.

To be fair, “The Lighthouse” turned out to be a horror movie rather than psychological thriller, though there was psychology aplenty (that no therapist in his or her right mind would get within an ocean of).

Director and co-screenwriter (with his brother) Robert Eggers apparently scored a hit with his first Sundance-debuted feature in 2015, “The Witch,” which followed the travails of a 17th century Puritan family squaring off against supernatural evil in the dark New England woods.

The grunts and shouts of two humans reduced to their lowest, periodically berserk animal selves is so overwhelming in its claustrophobia and assault on decency that I found a basic human defense kicking in: I laughed.

Eggers moves his protagonists east from those woods into the even more forsaken environs of an Atlantic Ocean outpost off Maine for his followup second feature. One wonders what he did during his directorial hiatus: indulge in the years-long fever dream that would seemingly have been required to conjure some of the shocking imagery bursting forth from this epically loathsome film?

Not that it is utterly devoid of content. “The Lighthouse” takes grimness and grayness—visual, auditory, psychological, ultimately spiritual—to truly impressive depths.

But the haunting black-and-white imagery, the landscape beset by lashing rain and fog and excrement, the relentless grinding of lighthouse metal, the mourn of the foghorn, the shrieks of seagulls, the grunts and shouts of two humans reduced to their lowest, periodically berserk animal selves, is so overwhelming in its claustrophobia and assault on decency that I found a basic human defense kicking in: I laughed.

What else is one to do—expose one’s tender nervous system and psyche to the pummeling of deeply disturbed individuals vomiting up the worst of their malformed humanity? Not an option, that.

Could have walked out, to be sure. But I was part of a small group, so I didn’t want to presume anything or create awkwardness among my fellow film-goers. And besides which, once I laughed, put my hand to my cheek in that kind of curious-wondering gesture, and thus erected my own psychological barriers against the sensory assault, I made a parlor game of the same morbidly fascinating question that millions of Americans are asking of our current resident in the White House: How much lower can he go?

The answer in both cases, after three years of observing the verbal assaults by Mr. Trump and nearly two hours last night confronting Mr. Eggers’s visual, auditory and story-telling assaults:  a lot lower than I could possibly have imagined.


Critics have mostly loved the film, though many with grave reservations. My favorite polarized views: “A bold, risk-taking work from a true cinematic visionary,” and ” A turgid, miserable, homoerotic dirge…” Here: have a peek!

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Lighthouse photo by Paul Johnston, UK

11 comments to Two Guys in a Lighthouse: What Could Go Wrong?

  • Bruce Curran  says:

    Andrew although I might be be cajoled into reading Henry Miller or Edgar Allen Poe even they would rarely be my choices in film, and this film sounds like a possible 21st century amalgam of the two. Your description certainly precludes me from ever spending my 119 minutes on this film. I have always been a devotee of Kenan Wayans philosophy about film. Wayans being an actor, producer and director, one assumes he has some insight. He once said that ” life itself is so challenging, difficult, possibly depressing, unfair, scary, (along with a number of other unpleasant things you described in your essay) that I do not want to spend 2 hours of my life re-experiencing that in the theater. So when I attend a film just do two things, either make me laugh or blow something up. I can get the rest of the stuff for free every day.” I am always quite circumspect in my film selections using Wayan’s principle and appreciate your description of an experience that I hope to avoid on a regular basis.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Interesting you should mention two writers, Bruce, which I think reflects a key point I hadn’t thought of in this instance. It’s about the difference between literary and film horror, violence, blood, gore, all the rest. There’s something fundamentally different between having to imagine (“image” being key there) atrocity and on the other hand, being confronted with it visually and aurally. Would be informative, I’m sure, to talk to a neuroscientist about this, and the different brain activity taking place between the two modes. I’d be surprised, actually, if studies have not been done on this very matter. For my own part, harrowing scenes in literature are manageable in a way that the same scenes in film are not. I’m guessing I am not alone in that experience.

      And then there is the whole matter of how one’s stomach gets involved as the brain processes the inputs…

      Thanks for this!

    • Jay Helman  says:

      Thanks for saving me from the temptation to see this film. We chose Motherless Brooklyn instead, and came away enthralled with the suspense and the remarkable performance of Edward Norton.

  • Mary  says:

    My experience of this film mirrors your own, Andrew, that of a grisly endurance test. When the lights (mercifully, finally) came on at the end I looked around at the audience….to a person they were sort of stunned, and then there was the manic laughter of relief. I was reminded of various hair raising flights I have endured where all the passengers clapped and cheered when the plane achieved terra firma: we survived!!!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yes, Mary, there we are in our little silos, all cocooned in our own seats and consciousness in the dark, trying to follow silently along with the cascade of imagery, noise and narrative, and then the credits roll and the lights come on and we come to and blink and have to take note of each other, and, in a movie like this one, squelch the impulse to shake our neighbor or shout out to a stranger, “Wow, did you just see and experience what I just did?!?!?!?!?!”

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    You’ve saved me $15.50 (senior matinee price for two) and 119 minutes.

  • kirkthill  says:

    I remember watching “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” and at one point the film switched from horror to farce for me. I think it was when a severed head rolled down the stairs and I laughed out loud in the theatre to many turned heads and frowns. It didn’t take long before many others joined in with their own guffaws.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Robert, given how many people I heard that from, I’m tempted to start some sort of review service focusing on “Movies You Shouldn’t See” and then charging a commish on the money people save. What’s your take on that as a niche business???

    Kirk, I think I may have seen the pre-Beyond “Valley of the Dolls” but if admittedly hazy memory serves correctly, I’m thinking if you plunked good money down for “Beyond…” you probably deserved anything it dished up for you!
    P.S. Thank you for using “guffaws” in a sentence. Much appreciated.

  • Kevin Feldman  says:

    I am with Robert & Mary here! – also checked Rotten Tomatoes and they had it: Critics 92% – Audience: 70%, kind of sums it up … while we just went to see a very flawed but still worthwhile Harriet, RT had it just reversed; Critics – 72% and Audience: 97% – here I have to go with crowd sourcing – Harriet is worth it just for the performance of Cynthia Erivo and the musical score of Terrance Blanchard! I guess it comes down to what we are looking for in terms of why we go to a movie… expanding on Bruce’s criteria thanks to Wayans, one could add “inspiration” to the list perhaps, Harriet had this to be sure!

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Drew, not a bad idea to transform yourself every now and then into a film critic. I’m pretty confident that I would find your analysis/recommendation more on the money than most of the film reviewers today. It would also be interesting to open discussions on old, rare or foreign films which so many present day movie goers still ignore or have never had the opportunity of seeing them. Finally, often the comments in Traversing create a life of their own and provide us all with “new” ideas.

  • Jeanette Millard  says:

    I lived in Germany for 4 years in the mid-to-late 70’s, and I had a big flashback watching the trailer to “Lighthouse.” I watched grim, dark, interesting and often-depressing movies steadily through those years, and beyond. I loved them. They stood (and still stand) in stark contrast to most films made in the USA; I came back in 1978 and couldn’t sit through a popular movie here. So superficial, shallow, mindless! Then *Superman* was released and I let go of all my critical faculties and *loved* it. That’s when I learned how to enjoy American movies.

    The cinematography and the sound of the trailer reminded me of Nosferatu (from the 20’s) and “M” (30’s), some of the roots of many of the great German films from the 70’s.
    I wonder if Lighthouse is intentional in that mirroring. Makes me sort of curious to see it – when it is online!

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