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‘The Lighthouse’ Is a Terrific Comedy About Having a Terrible Roommate

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe’s acclaimed horror movie is a terrifying look at extreme cabin fever and men behaving badly. It’s also really funny.

Most of our lives are centered on relationships — and our relationship with our relationships. How we interact with our families, our coworkers, our children, our significant others, our exes — whole self-help sections are devoted to the fraught, complicated exchanges we have with these people, and how they affect our general well-being. 

But what of the roommate? That platonic individual we spend some period of our lives with, either in college or afterward during our bachelorhood, who sees us when we’re away from the outside world and at our most unguarded? There seems to be far less interest in exploring that relationship, in part because it seems so ephemeral. We’re only hanging out with the guy because we need someone to split the rent. Maybe we’re friends — maybe we’re just two random dudes who fell into a mutually-beneficial living arrangement. But to pretend that those years don’t have any bearing on us seems ridiculous. A roommate sees us when we’re not trying to pretend to be anyone other than ourselves. They know our secrets, and we know theirs. And, at least for heterosexual men, it’s often the first adult, intimate relationship a lot of us experience. No wonder it rarely works out well.

 Technically speaking, The Lighthouse is a psychological horror film, a superb tale of madness about two 1890s lighthouse keepers on a remote New England island who slowly start to turn on one another. Is it a disturbing metaphor for toxic masculinity? A warning about the untamed, righteous fury of Mother Nature? Probably. But it’s also one of the darkly funniest indies of recent times, a freaky exploration of how, left to their own devices, men will sooner or later want to tear one another apart — especially in close quarters. As IndieWire’s Eric Kohn put it, “It’s the best movie about bad roommates ever made.” 

The film comes from the mind of Robert Eggers, the promising young horror director who made his feature-length debut with The Witch, an unsettling portrait of a rural family tormented by an unseen menace during Colonial times. Eggers likes to strip away the trappings of modern life, thrusting us into a disturbing, primitive past where technology cannot protect the characters (or the audience) from the elemental terrors coming their way.

In The Lighthouse, Eggers crafts a world so severe that it’s equally enrapturing, imposing and sneakily hilarious. We meet two men: Thomas (Willem Dafoe), an older and more experienced lighthouse keeper; and Winslow (Robert Pattinson), his young coworker who has gone through several jobs, hoping to outrun an unhappy past. They are to safeguard a lighthouse for about a month, after which time other men will arrive to take over the task, and the job requires them to live together in ramshackle conditions while braving unpredictable, stormy weather. Festooned with colorful facial hair and grim expressions, Thomas and Winslow don’t exactly hit off, but they can tough it out. Hey, work’s work.

You’ll get no points for guessing that things don’t go according to plan — or that the difficult ordeal they’re about to endure will help bring them closer. Quite the contrary, The Lighthouse is a meticulous dissection of extreme cabin fever, observing as two ornery men learn to hate one another with every fiber of their being. Any particular reason for their animus? In the final analysis, it seems simply because they’re men.

Early on in The Lighthouse, a dynamic is established between the lighthouse keepers. Thomas wants to be the alpha dog, positioning himself as the commander of this two-man outfit, with Winslow as his subordinate. Thomas gives himself the cushy job standing watch in the lighthouse tower, while Winslow must do the backbreaking chores around the island. Thomas sees his younger coworker as an apprentice, a protégé, but Winslow isn’t interested, which starts a simmering tension between them. When the two men dine together every night, Thomas insists on them saying a toast, as is maritime tradition, but Winslow refuses — he doesn’t drink, not anymore, and he doesn’t much care for this old coot anyway. Thomas tries to assert his superiority in different ways — bossing the young man around, teasing him, loudly farting with impunity — in an attempt to beat Winslow into submission. Occasionally, they talk about what happened to Thomas’ former coworker, a mystery shrouded in menace. For much of the film, Winslow is the quiet one. But you just know eventually he’s going to explode.

With its grainy black-and-white photography and bellowing sound design, The Lighthouse feels like a folktale brought to life, ancient and ominous. The wind never stops howling, and it looks colder than hell on that island, and that’s to say nothing of the strange visions Winslow starts experiencing. The more Thomas hazes him, the more Winslow fantasizes about killing him. Or maybe it’s all in his head: Weird mermaids, vindictive seagulls and a creepy wooden figurine begin to infect his thinking. Cut off from the outside world, and with no help on the horizon, the two men are trapped together. Is Thomas insane? Or is Winslow the one losing his mind? The Lighthouse provides no answers, and as the film’s ineffable tension continues to rise, we feel like we’re trapped right along with them. 

This probably makes the film sound unbearably claustrophobic and intense, which would be accurate. But that wouldn’t do justice to how funny The Lighthouse is, too. If the fart jokes aren’t a giveaway, Eggers underlines his movie’s clear satirical side by making some of his story’s most disturbing elements also shockingly hysterical. (If a bird was as much of a dick to me as it is to Winslow, I’d probably respond the same way he does.) The Lighthouse keeps ratcheting up the absurdity of these two characters’ macho posturing. The film is amusingly, knowingly scatological — The Lighthouse is overrun by semen, urine and shit — as a way of showing how men are reduced to their filthiest biological urges when they’re left unmonitored. And because the film’s look is so gorgeously austere, the story ends up becoming a deadpan comedy of (bad) manners.

The Lighthouse’s dialogue, inspired by Herman Melville and period texts, is full of dated slang and seafaring gibberish that might as well be a foreign language. But the pettiness of Thomas and Winslow’s feud — which is mostly carried out through words — is universal, and soon they devolve into squabbling boys fighting over the coolest toy. And in this film, that’s the glowing light of the tower, a primordial fire coveted by these cavemen. Roommates forced to coexist always end up clashing over something tangible since that’s more socially acceptable than simply beating each other’s brains out. But in The Lighthouse, such niceties are always at risk — the threat of violence hangs over the proceedings like low, gray clouds.

No matter your own roommate experiences, you’ll see yourself in The Lighthouse. Maybe you’re Thomas: Dafoe plays him as a bully who’s secretly insecure that the young kid has no respect for him or the ancient customs. (Thomas is basically the “play the game the right way” of lighthouse keepers.) Or maybe you’re Winslow: Pattinson’s grizzled focus is perfect for a young man who’s made plenty of mistakes and doesn’t need this old bastard busting his balls. Whatever their lives were like before this movie, we don’t know — all that matters is the animosity and misplaced aggression from past wounds that flare up in this crucible. It’s a cliché that men don’t know how to talk about their feelings, but in The Lighthouse that stereotype is the stuff of rich comedy. Homoerotic tension, drunken shouting matches, live burials: This spectacularly primal movie has it all. It’s terrifying. But it’s also a riot.

Here are three other takeaways from The Lighthouse

#1. For generations, men have been obsessed with mermaid sex.

Strange visions start to visit Winslow in The Lighthouse, including a gorgeous, terrifying mermaid with working female genitalia. This is just the latest movie to ponder mermaid sex, a preoccupation of male filmmakers and writers for years — so much so that, back in 2011, io9 presented a cultural history of how to make love to a mermaid. Writer Meredith Woerner offered the following, based on her close study of movies and TV shows:

“The easiest way to have sex with a mermaid is to do it while they are in their human form, on land. I know a lot of you are probably rolling your eyes, because what’s the appeal if you can’t do it in monster form? Trust us, we know. But we thought it worth mentioning. The safest way to have sex with a mermaid (also with infinitely less clean up) is to wait until he or she is dry and do it with two pairs of legs. Because as we learned in Splash, almost all mermaids turn into humans when dry.”

The appeal of mermaid sex is fairly obvious. There’s the curiosity of mating with a sea creature that’s both insanely beautiful and decidedly primal. And in popular culture, mermaids are often presented as virginal and trusting — avatars of innocence and decency. They’re good girls looking for a strong, strapping man — or in the case of Splash’s Tom Hanks, a decent-enough Average Joe. 

That’s what makes The Lighthouse’s mermaid so shockingly different — she’s sexually available but also possibly a harbinger of doom. Eggers recently talked to The Daily Beast about the film’s mermaid sex scene, mentioning, “It was very pre-planned and storyboarded. The design of the mermaid’s genitals — based on shark labias — was all planned out.” And because Eggers loves doing a lot of research into the periods in which he sets his films, he’s become a bit of an expert in mermaid lore:

“The mermaid on the Starbucks cup that has two tails is based on an early mermaid design. Medieval and Renaissance mermaids were always split so that these anima figures of male fantasy could perform their role that had been unfairly thrust upon them by their male imaginers. But no surprise that in the Victorian Era, they closed the mermaids up and made them impenetrable. So that single-tail mermaid silhouette has become the archetypal mermaid look for people today, and also what a mermaid would have looked like in the period of the movie.”

His due diligence leads to one of The Lighthouse’s best scenes. Meanwhile, poor mermen continue to wait for their big breakthrough.

#2. There won’t be a better seagull performance this year.

The Lighthouse is a classic two-hander, but if there was a third character in this horror-thriller, it might be a pesky seagull that makes Winslow’s life hell. The bird was such a hit with audiences at Cannes that A24 has built the movie’s promotional campaign partly around the nasty little fucker:

Remarkably, the bird isn’t a digital construction — he and his pals are real seagulls, which makes them far more menacing and hilariously vengeful, especially when we learn what they’re capable of in The Lighthouse. This week, Eggers told VICE about working with trained seagulls:

“It was stressful because my brother [cowriter Max Eggers] and I committed to the seagull before we knew if it could be done. So that was foolish — I don’t think you should do that and I’m not doing it again. Because we were getting into production and still hadn’t figured out how we were going to get the seagull.

“With the help of Chris Columbus and his owl trainer from Harry Potter, we ended up finding three seagulls from the U.K. Their names were Johnny, Lady and Tramp. They were really great. You know when the gull flies on the windowsill, pecks three times and flies away? I thought we were going to be stitching together like three takes, but the gulls just did it.”

Lately, we seem to be in a golden age of tour de force seagull performances. Just a few years ago, a bird credited as Steven Seagull (yes, really) earned raves in the Blake Lively shark thriller The Shallows. It too was a real seagull. “Everybody loved him, to be totally honest,” animal trainer Katie Brock-Medland later told Entertainment Weekly. “Blake once turned around to me and said, ‘I think I’m being out-acted by your bird.’”

I just hope all the attention doesn’t go to their tiny little heads.

#3. Here’s my wish for Robert Pattinson’s Batman movie.

As you probably know, Pattinson will be the next Caped Crusader. Slated for June 2021, The Batman has Pattinson as Batman, with Zoë Kravitz set to play Catwoman and Matt Reeves (who directed two of the recent Planet of the Apes movies) behind the camera. (Jonah Hill was reportedly courted to play the villain, but he’s no longer attached. Instead, Paul Dano is on board as the Riddler.) It’s still early days, and nobody’s talking about what exactly The Batman will be about, but last month, Pattinson dropped a few vague clues:

“It’s an interesting direction,” he said. “It’s something from the comics which hasn’t been really explored yet.” I’m not conversant enough in Batman’s comic-book past to speculate, and since Joker director Todd Phillips has already shot down the idea that Joaquin Phoenix would meet up with Pattinson in a Dark Knight movie, we really know next to nothing about what to expect from The Batman. Our only real clue comes from Reeves, who said that his Batman will be a “noir Batman tale. … It’s more Batman in his detective mode than we’ve seen in the films. The comics have a history of that.”

So with that in mind, I’d like to make a modest proposal for what I’d love from The Batman.

In our franchise age, it’s standard for actors to sign up for multiple films, sort of like what Pattinson did for the Twilight movies. Nowadays, the idea of the standalone blockbuster is just about unheard of. (Even with Joker, Phillips and Phoenix have talked about maybe doing another one, although the director has said, “We really like that this movie lives on its own.”) But what if Pattinson and Reeves decided to just make one great Batman film and have that be it? What if they did something that’s never happened in a Batman movie and kill off Bruce Wayne at the end?

From a career standpoint, it would make some sense for Pattinson, who’s an insanely busy actor. (Before The Batman, he’ll have Tenet, the new Christopher Nolan film, and also possibly The Stars at Noon, in which he’ll reunite with his High Life director Claire Denis.) And after toiling for years in the Twilight salt mines, it seems like he’s enjoyed the freedom of bouncing from one acclaimed indie to the next. Nobody would be expecting a standalone Batman movie — it would be amazing if he and Reeves decided to go for it.

Will this happen? Almost certainly not. Warner Bros. prizes its most popular DC property, so the studio needs for this new reboot to produce several hit films. But allow me to dream for a minute. Imagine if The Batman is terrific, and then its director and star just walk away on a high note. It would be unprecedented, which would be part of the appeal. We’ll know in about two years if my crazy wish comes true.