While millions of Americans are self-isolating at home—and their families are getting on their last nerve, and they would do anything just to go sit at a sports bar for a couple hours by themselves—what movie does Amazon decide to offer for free, starting today, to Prime users? Something about crowds of friends getting together and laughing? About people frolicking in the great outdoors? A 90-minute montage of strangers shaking their sweaty hands? Go on, guess!
No, it’s The Lighthouse, about two guys in the 1890s going stir crazy from being trapped in a lighthouse together for months on end!
Is this cruel irony the work of vengeful heavens? Or is it just that Amazon and production company A24 scheduled this months ago after The Lighthouse wrapped up its 2019 theatrical run? Either way, I’m here to tell you The Lighthouse will fit these WTF times like a seagull’s beak can fit into your eye socket. And I can just about guarantee that when you’re done watching it, you’ll look around at your life and say, “Well, this could all be worse by orders of magnitude.”
Light on plot, heavy on bonkers
The Lighthouse is a parade of awfulness, and it’s hilarious. The head lighthouse dude (Willem Dafoe) is a crusty sonuvabitch who gets a kick out of tormenting the new guy (Robert Pattinson), possibly because the new guy isn’t an effective “wickie.” Or maybe he just finds Pattison’s dishiness offensive.
The new guy spends his days stirring coal, emptying chamberpots, and being harassed by a seagull. The old guy, meanwhile, likes to stare directly into the lighthouse’s kajillion-watt lamp before crafting a new way to bust the new guy’s balls. Off-hours are devoted to drinking, farting, masturbating, lusting after mermaids, and possibly having visions of eldritch sea gods. Or not. Our Guys are either beset by supernatural forces or are just wildly incompatible roommates. Doors creak, wind howls. Drowning nightmares and unholy visions ensue, along with a thousand memes based around ye olde dick jokes and RPatz looking miserable. One of my coworkers is planning on replacing his next Thanksgiving blessing with Willem Dafoe’s speech summoning Triton. The accents are bizarre, and the facial hair is tremendous.
“O what Protean forms swim up from men’s minds”
Why do awful things and awful people make us laugh? Theories abound. Here’s one: we secretly wish we could visit our crapulence upon others without consequence, and so we scratch that itch by watching movies about dreadful people being dreadful. But I hope I don’t secretly long to be Bad Lieutenant, screaming at little old ladies while waving a .44 Magnum (although admit it, a coked-up Nic Cage threatening senior citizens with a giant revolver gave you a giggle).
Another theory about why we laugh during horror movies—and The Lighthouse is a horror movie even though I cackled so much my face hurt and my bladder control was tested—is that we don’t want anyone else to know that we’re scared. So we hide that with laughter. We announce to everyone around us, “I’m not scared!”
But the theory that sits best with me is incongruity. We laugh at things we know are wrong—irrational, immoral, atypical, blasphemous horrors—as a way to acknowledge, to whomever will listen, how much we know these things are wrong. Mental Floss has this breezy summary:
[S]ome theorists argue that we laugh because horror and humor have in their roots the same phenomena: incongruity and transgression. We laugh when something is incongruous, when it goes against our expectations, or breaks a social law (when a character does or says something inappropriate, for instance). But in another context, those same things are perceived as scary—usually when something veers from harmless incongruity into potentially dangerous territory.
So a duck wearing a hat and your Lyft driver wearing a tanktop made of human flesh are kind of the same? Sure, I’ll buy that. Comedy and horror both involve setting up a universe with certain expectations before either subverting those expectations or fulfilling them beyond all reason. That seems as good an explanation as any for how Jordan Peele glides so easily from funny to scary. (Re-watch Key & Peele and tell me that plenty of them weren’t horror all along. I’ll wait.)
“How long have we been on this rock?”
But anyway, back to The Lighthouse. The movie is helmed by director/co-writer Robert Eggers, who taught us to live deliciously with his 2015 debut feature, The Witch (OK, here’s the real trailer, but you get my point about horror and comedy). Both films involve a conflict between a young skeptic and an authoritarian whose belief in the supernatural is unwavering. Both films convinced me they are meticulous reconstructions not just of the clothing and locations of bygone eras but of their attitudes and dialect. Both films use dialogue drawn—sometimes verbatim—from contemporary sources, and one imagines the scripts are filled with random capitalization and punctuation that has fallen into disuse.
When you’re isolating at home and watching The Lighthouse in the dark late at night while eating pinto beans straight from the tin, don’t adjust your set. Even though the movie came out in 2019, Eggers shot it in black-and-white with a 4:3 screen ratio (actually 1.19:1, but who’s counting?). The effect not only harkens back to cinema’s early days—which are right around the corner for the wickies—but mimics the claustrophobia of the lighthouse itself. Even the movie’s poster doesn’t give our two players enough room. As for the black-and-white—our stupid world is in color, so getting to see stuff in black-and-white is always a reprieve. Give your eyeballs a rest.
“If I had a steak…”
And now I defend Robert Pattinson. If the Internet is to be believed, people who think of him only as the sparkle-boi vampire from Twilight are drinking heavily, losing sleep, and failing their lovers in anticipation of his turn in next year’s The Batman. But we’re all friends here, and let’s be honest—how much of the criticism of Twilight was just kink-shaming thirsty moms? Anyway, RPatz’s resume since then includes 1) a post-apocalyptic yokel in The Rover, 2) getting to say “the jungle is hell, but one kind of likes it” in The Lost City of Z from the director of Ad Astra, 3) going to space for Claire Denis in High Life, and 4) being scumbag-righteous in Good Time from the Safdie brothers, who went on to make a little movie called Uncut Motherf&*$ing Gems (NSFW). So let’s quit pretending he’s trash.
As for Willem Dafoe—his snub at the 2019 Oscars is rivaled only by Adam Sandler’s.
Let us draw to a close with the elephant in the room: maybe praising a movie about confinement and claustrophobia while so many of us are self-isolating could—just maybe sorta kinda—come across as insensitive. But millions of Americans with essential jobs are not able to self-isolate. And depriving them of seeing Willem Dafoe fry his brain from staring at a giant lightbulb would be unconscionable.
Listing image by A24