To try to get to the bottom of whether The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’s divisive follow-up to the The Witch, is sheer brilliance or sheer twaddle, we asked two writers, one who loved the film and one who decidedly didn’t, to make their cases. And honestly? We still can’t tell!
PRO: The Lighthouse feels like Samuel Beckett wrote a demented play inspired by Moby-Dick, and then Robert Bresson adapted it with all of his aesthetic austerity and expressive resources. It’s a lucid nightmare in which you are deprived of all agency and dignity, both by external authority and by internal compulsion, while menacing seagulls loom over a sterile rock, covered in blood, semen, and bird shit, where you’re stuck. Your only hope is for a sea full of monsters and fantastical creatures to finally devour you—but the sea, indifferent, never does. Shot with an appropriately claustrophobic aspect ratio, the film interweaves the alienation of labor with classical myths in the fashion of postwar existentialism. With absurdist humor, Prometheus and Sisyphus find their eternal punishments on this island, where the hostility of both nature and capitalism become so unbearably acute that they produce bursts of maniacal laughter. Willem Dafoe, in an enrapturing performance, transfigures himself into a terrifying Neptunian deity, among barking and farts. Disgusting and alluring, hypnotic and delirious, The Lighthouse is a bad omen that sheds ruthless light on the isolation and meaninglessness of industrial modernity. —Marta Núñez Pouzols
CON: A cautionary tale: Lars von Trier and Ingmar Bergman have a baby to alleviate the misery of their post-Christian existentialist marriage. It doesn’t work. The wan winter light of the Arctic Circle and the weight of their angst are too much to overcome. So they give the baby to Antonin Artaud, who raises it in the same lightless basement where he perfected his theater of cruelty. Raised on a diet of ashes and gruel, the child eventually escapes to write a fun little movie called The Lighthouse. On a bleak island in the middle of nowhere, a grizzled lighthouse keeper steeped in ominous maritime superstitions torments a gaunt newbie until they succumb to the ennui of cramped cohabitation. Driven mad by each other’s visceral secretions, psycho-spiritual worms, and an unrelenting nor’easter raging outside, the men … well, it’s a lot of exertion to establish the profound truth that life is hard and then you die. The film is technically flawless and very well done. Please don’t watch it. Instead, take a holiday to some place where people don’t have to adjust the clock twice a year just to keep the dreary days from driving them bonkers. Life ought to be spent doing things more delightful than elevating the twin human desires for light and dark into an absurdist art form. —Srinath Jayaram