living the insanity in ‘The Lighthouse’

Credit: A24

” Boredom makes men to villian”

This is exactly what you feel when you watch The Lighthouse.

The Lighthouse (2019) offers a different kind of thrill, something which hasn’t been seen in a while. There are so many things which you can say add to creating this haunting feeling. The foremost of them is the choice of its being in black and white. In cinema, colour plays an important role in setting the mood of the movie. While brighter colour symbolizes happiness which are mostly used in rom coms, dull or faded colours give it a more serious and gloomy look. In The Lighthouse the use of black and white only makes it better. The aspect ratio is 1.19:1 which is not what we usually see in modern cinema. These two aspects of the film give it an unsettling mood. The movie has almost no background score, but this works in giving it a feeling of isolation. The sounds that you hear are of the sea, the seagulls and the loud disturbing noise of the lighthouse. The other aspect which enhances the sense of isolation is the conversations of the two main characters being inspired by folk culture including references to life in the sea.

What really sets up The Lighthouse is how the monotonicity and the haunt of the place matches up with the innate personality of the two characters, Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) to bring out the insanity in them. To start off, the island itself is mysterious enough to drive any one crazy. It’s in a remote place devoid of human establishments. It is regularly hit by waves and the sound made by it prevents anyone in search for calmness. In addition to that there are seagulls and there is that haunting regular noise made by the lighthouse. This only adds to the tension being experienced by the characters and completes the mythical nature of the film. The nature of this place is enough to drive any man crazy.

Credit: A24

Alert: Spoilers Ahead

As for Howard and Wake both are more than regular men. Both of them have a troubled past. In his past Howard has had many jobs, all of which that can provide wages to a man. It is clear that he has eventually felt out of place in every one of them. When prompted he says he has had too much of the greenery while working in timber and it was one of the reasons why he had taken that job. As for Wake he has abandoned his wife and kids. He says he has spent thirteen Christmases away from his family. What makes both of them common are that both have their secrets and are trying to mislead each other with their true identities. Howard at first mentions his name to be Ephraim Winslow. We further get to know that his name is in fact Thomas Howard. In fact Ephraim Winslow is the name of the man he had killed before getting this job. Howard gives his defense against this by saying it happened by accident. Thomas Wake tells he has been a sailor. Later Howard concludes that he is lying.

One of the reasons why Howard would have chosen this job could be an escape from his past. He would have wanted a sense of disconnection from the world. In the beginning of the film you can say that he succeeded in building an anonymous world for himself (at least for four weeks). Little does he know that consequences are not in his hand since his sanity will be taken over by this mysterious island. The frustration he has been carrying is increased by the dominating nature of Wake. The film is well crafted with symbols which show the conflict of interests and Howard’s helplessness in front of the scenario he is put in.

Wake rags Howard throughout their stay, giving him tough jobs and not being satisfied by his work. The job requires them to work in shifts in the lantern but Wake reserves the lantern for himself. Lantern may not be an attractive thing in the regular world but here it is the only thing which attracts attention. While the rest of the island is filled with things that don’t go well with Howard, lantern is the only thing which attracts him. The underlying symbol in this can be that Howard seeks the light from the lantern to vanish the dark of his past. He tries to get as close to it as possible but throughout the film it is out of his reach. This is the reason why when Wake dies the first thing he does is to climb up the lantern. Prior to that when Wake was alive, unable to get the lantern, his mind retorts to finding life in other things. He finds a toy mermaid stashed in his bed and masturbates to it. His fantasies lead to hallucinations. He hallucinates about a mermaid washed up to the shore. He fantasizes himself having sex with it.

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The seagulls are an important part of reminding us how the island doesn’t welcome Howard. He has several encounters with the seagulls. One of them triggers Howard and he smashes the seagull brutally to death in spite of being warned by Wake that killing a seagull brings bad luck. Wake also tells him that seagulls carry the souls of the sailors. So when he kills a seagull he hallucinates about the sailor whose soul this seagull might be carrying. He also hallucinates about the real Ephraim Winslow whom he killed. All of these show his inabilities to accept the real world around him. These hallucinations slowly drift him to madness.

Wake might be the only other human on the island but it is tough for Howard to form a bond of humanity with him. The two of them aren’t true to either of them, both have their secrets. While throughout the day Wake tatters Howard, it is only when they are drunk they talk heartily. Wake shows a dominating nature towards Howard. In The Lighthouse Wake seems to be a reflection of Howard who may have lived the experiences of Howard and is now a whole different person. While Howard struggles to cope with the madness it seems that this doesn’t affect Wake as if he has already seen all of this. It feels as if he is testing Howard and is taking him closer to madness. With all this Wake seems mythological. Later in the film Howard finds the document that lists the other people who were in the job before Howard, all of them had given up against the madness.

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There can be many interpretations of the ending. At the end insanity completely takes over Howard as he tries to bury Wake alive and then kills him with an axe. An alive Wake never allowed him to be in the lantern, so the moment Wake dies he climbs up to the lantern. After this there can be a long discussion on what he finds in the lantern. The final scene shows an alive Howard lying on the rocks with seagulls feeding on him. So, the question arises what really kills Howard while Wake survives every time he has been there. What seems fairer here is the interpretation to be symbolic and philosophical rather than literal.

The thing about the lantern is that it may not be drool worthy to normal beings at first but it has a sense of mystery to it and this is what attracts Howard. It’s the pleasure of thinking about something unknown and imagining its potential beauty when the outside world doesn’t satisfy your expectations. It’s an engaging thing to think about but all that is over as soon as you actually see or experience it. One of the interpretations can be that when he actually gets to the lantern and sees it, the lantern doesn’t live up to the expectations of Howard. After that he has lost any other remaining purpose that can maintain his sanity. Whatever Howard finds there is forbidden for him and he has to pay the ultimate price of trying to gain the forbidden.

Credit: A24

Shubham Kumar

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