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The No Man’s Land of “The Lighthouse” and its Relevance

Willem Dafoe (left) and Robert Pattinson (right) in Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse”. Photo: A24.

Contains minor spoilers for “The Lighthouse”.

It very much feels like in order to fully grasp the uncannily literate depths of Robert Eggers’ 2019 soon-to-be-classic film, “The Lighthouse”, one may have to first read and/or watch Harold Pinter’s 1974 magnum opus, “No Man’s Land”, a play that opens on “[a] large room in a house in North West London”, in which Hirst, a somewhat reserved and slow-talking litterateur in his sixties, has just invited a drunkely verbose literary peer named Spooner over to his place for a drink. In the middle of their awkward conversation, Hirst tosses out a hint to his past related to a cottage he owned, and elaborates briefly when Spooner jumps at the chance and further nags at him to reveal more. When Spooner then asks about his wife — to which Hirst briefly responds, “What wife?” out of genuine confusion — this rather revelatory and surprising exchange occurs:

SPOONER: How beautiful she was, how tender and how true. Tell me with what speed she swung in the air, with what velocity she came off the wicket […] my wife… had everything. Eyes, a mouth, hair teeth, buttocks, breasts, absolutely everything. And legs.

HIRST: Which carried her away.

SPOONER: Carried who away? Yours or mine? […] I begin to wonder whether you do in fact truly remember her, whether you truly did love her, truly caressed her, truly did cradle her, truly did husband her, falsely dreamed or did truly adore her.

Ian McKellen (left), Patrick Stewart (center), and Owen Teale (right) in a 2016 performance of Harold Pinter’s “No Man’s Land”. Photo: The New York Times.

While the reasoning behind Hirst’s sudden response to Spooner’s description is clarified later on in the play, the exchange still works to explicate a prevalent theme shown throughout this story — the idea that the truth behind memory is as fabricated and loosely held together as the tightly woven and elaborate descriptions that we conjure up for memory itself. With this exchange alone, the two men and their unawareness of the women in their lives, even as they show clear signs of remembrance, set up exactly what’s to come in the ensuing pages, as the arrival of Hirst’s two manservants only seeks to further complicate this disjointed passage of time and memory, all of which occurs inside of what soon reveals itself to be a temporally frozen and eternally isolated no man’s land, “which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but remains forever, icy, silent.”

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Eggers most likely derived inspiration from this play in the process of conceptualizing “The Lighthouse” — a film specifically surrounding the isolation of two lighthouse keepers stranded on an island in the 1890s and their hallucinatory descent into insanity over an unspecified amount of time — as he’s made no secret of Pinter’s significant influence on his work in the several interviews that have followed the film’s release. Pinter isn’t alone in having spiritually contributed to this film, however; “The Lighthouse” is a deftly histrionic and brilliantly composed film piece that pulls inspiration from all sorts of influences in a litany of literary eras and storytelling mediums, placing them strictly in a setting that practically begs to be offered such a historically reverent treatment. For instance, Jarin Blaschke’s Academy Award-nominated black-and-white cinematography is heavily evocative of legendary Swedish cinematographer Sven Nyqvist’s impressive work on several early Ingmar Bergman films, particularly in “The Seventh Seal”, with its atmospheric usage of waves crashing onto rocky shorelines being almost exactly replicated in “The Lighthouse”’s many painterly and impressionistic exterior sequences. Elements of German expressionism in films such as F.W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu” — a film that Eggers has repeatedly voiced his immense fondness for — is also reflected in many of “The Lighthouse”’s haunting visuals and excellent usage of contrast.

Max von Sydow (right) and Bengt Ekerot (left) in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”. Photo: Janus Films.

Much of the writing, atmosphere, and setting in “The Lighthouse” is also directly lifted not just from records and logbook entries written by real-life lighthouse keepers of the late nineteenth century, but also the literature of that era — Lovecraftian eldritch horrors are sparsely seen in some of the more surrealistic sequences from the film, and one could very well point out Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” or Samuel Taylor Colridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as clear influences on “The Lighthouse”’s dialogue and its usage of maritime superstitions, such as the belief that murdering the island’s seagulls would lead to some kind of a great tumultuous storm as a result of angering the gods, reflected in this stanza from Colridge’s work:

And I had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ’em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay,
That made the breeze to blow!

An accompanying etching by William Strang for “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

No story about the dangers of isolation and the ensuing Pinteresque fallibility of memory would ever be truly complete, however, without the appropriate actors present to convey such an innately human descent into madness, and Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe both deliver career-defining work through this film. Dafoe burns up the screen in every single one of his scenes with his flawless execution of Thomas Wake, an incredibly talkative, domineering, and sea-smart wickie whose every facet of his appearance and dialogue seems to be both an homage and a parody of the classic Ahab-esque mariner figure. Pattinson’s equally impressive portrayal of Ephraim Winslow — reminiscent of Daniel Day-Lewis’s venomous performance of Daniel Plainview in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood”, a compliment of the highest order — flows through various different accents, mannerisms, attitudes, and emotions with eerily natural precision, and the psychological veneer that Pattinson sets up early on for his initially reserved character is very thoroughly peeled back as more and more about both his and Wake’s situation is either brought to light or thrown into further obscurity.

Robert Pattinson (left) and Willem Dafoe (right) in Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse”. Photo: A24.

A majority of the dynamic between these two characters surrounds a very fundamental power imbalance, and in a location such as an isolated and almost mythical island where tensions run high, alcohol flows freely, and crustacean creatures and even mermaids make frequent appearances on land and on sea, madness is an inevitable part of their tenure on the island. Wake repeatedly gaslights Winslow over the course of the film regarding his labor, their pasts, and the various skirmishes they have during their time on the island — he also continues to assert his possession of the otherworldly light on top of the lighthouse, an object that Winslow shows a constant craving for over the course of the film, and a craving that drives him to great mental extremes in order to attain for himself. It’s incredible just how many themes the film ultimately ends up packing into just this kind of tension between two people stranded on the same island, but ultimately, it’s the film’s literacy that allows such a relatively contained film with only two notable characters to possess a depth of meaning rivaled only by the very classics it takes inspiration from.

Photo: A24.

Unfortunately, “The Lighthouse”’s narrative depth and relevance has also taken on another, more recently developed form, as such a maddening depiction of isolation is only going to resonate further in the midst of a global quarantine set in place for the duration of a deadly pandemic, where millions of people have found themselves confined in their own homes, and the outside world now poses an unimaginable risk to both health and safety in a maelstrom of chaos. Many people have spent the better part of half a year looking at the same clock on the wall, the same books on a shelf, the same view out their window on a near-constant basis, sitting at the same desk every day either to work or study over hastily organized Zoom meetings, and such a static and unmoving quality of life had led some to a vast sense of fascination as to both how slowly yet quickly this year has gone by.

Perhaps this film can offer at least some answers, as one of the main points of contention between “The Lighthouse”’s two protagonists regards the end of their term on the island — while Winslow initially learns that their departure is in four weeks, a vigorous storm arrives by that time, and Wake uses this opportunity to perhaps dupe Winslow into believing they had already missed their window for departure, and that the ship that was meant to deliver them from the island had already passed by some time ago. It’s one of an extensive host of elements introduced in the film that establishes this purgatory-esque and thoroughly gaslit atmosphere, and the fact that the entire film is completely set in one static, unchanging location with no exit only makes it seem like time stays in tandem with that frozen, ever-constant state.

In reality, however, it only seems to be slipping more quickly from our fingers than it ever has before, and as more time goes by, the truth behind memory starts to grow more uncertain, the reality behind events is gradually altered, and everything begins to break down. The film translates this erosion of reality into a purely cinematic method of portraying a disjointed and unconscious passage of time, and when combined with the film’s staggering usage of the most morbid and otherworldly aspects of mythology, literature, and superstition, the controlled sense of chaos and the crushing loneliness the film takes great pains to establish only becomes more and more overwhelming.

Photo: A24.

Ultimately, this is the very human toll of isolation, and given the vast amount of uncertainty regarding how, when, and even if the quarantine we find ourselves in will ever end in the foreseeable future, time is only ever going to continue rapidly passing us by. “The Lighthouse”’s usage of literary influences offers an immense amount of depth to its own themes, which in turn have far too much to say regarding the effects of our current seclusion from the rest of the world. Much like the insanity of the film, all it may take is for one shattering contradiction regarding our uncertain, limited knowledge of our own isolation to send us spiraling into a psychological no man’s land, where our memories of a past before solitude is drowned and muddied by the unchanging, ever-constant minutiae of our current loneliness. It is a place which never moves, which never changes, which never grows older, but remains forever, icy, silent.

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James Y. Lee

James Y. Lee

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Korean-American student scriptwriter/film critic. CIC affiliate member. | Letterboxd: letterboxd.com/darthgamer/ | Twitter: https://twitter.com/killthejokes