The Lighthouse: Chris Crow’s Haunting Island Sonata

Throughout the history of storytelling real life events have provided sustenance for dramatic fiction. While the mind and the levels of consciousness remain shrouded in ambiguity, human civilisation has nonetheless built itself upon a desire to create a concrete level of understanding. This has led to the projection of our consciousness upon the universe and planet where there is otherwise none. This is the foible in humanity, a weak point in our collective sense of self. Storytelling however has concrete origins – everything in narrative fiction born out of reality and the everyday, through the human experience across the generations. Chris Crow’s psychological drama The Lighthouse (2015) dramatises the tragic events of 1801 on Smalls Island, where twenty-five miles from land in the violent Irish Sea, grief marked lighthouse keepers Thomas Howell (Michael Jibson) and Thomas Griffith (Mark Lewis Jones) find themselves caught in a prolonged storm.

Here we have an example of how storytelling offers the concrete origins for which we place such an emphasis on as a civilisation. Yet it is one that shows that our everyday reality remains convoluted by religious belief. And in so doing it is demonstrative of the power of storytelling to reinforce human foibles, and to subjugate creation and natural events to conscious intent and self-awareness. We should not disregard how religion was a means to temporarily light up the abyss of confusion in an uncertain world, until science and philosophy could offer us an enlightened view. Therein, the logical trajectory of human evolution is to part ways with religion and become autonomous from belief structures that subjugate man to higher beings or forces. Rather the conflict of life is conscious man versus his unconscious habitat. While an effective psychological drama through suspenseful tension and a haunting quality, beneath its skin, Crow’s genre film is so much more. With its deep and profound undercurrents it illuminates the potential for genre to be as intellectually vital and important as art cinema.

Michael Jibson and Mark Lewis Jones arrive on Smalls Island in Chris Crow's The Lighthouse
“We could then perceive Howell (background) and Griffiths (foreground) as the two musical instruments in their human sonata.”

In these spatially and character restricted stories of which The Lighthouse belongs, there are fewer narrative implements for the filmmaker to use. The movement between locations is an opportunity to liberate the characters and drama, expanding the scope of the narrative. Yet in the hands of a skilled filmmaker, these limitations do not hinder the creation of a compelling tale. Rather the spatial limitation of such classics as Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) and Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957), are examples of the filmic incarnation of theatre. And if The Lighthouse alongside these earlier examples are filmic incarnations of theatre, they could also be described as being similar to the intimate chamber music of the classical repertoire. More than his symphonies that became big public affairs, the string quartet chamber works of Soviet composer Dimitri Shostakovich served to reveal his soul and the rawest feelings of living under the oppressive Stalinist state. And while these these three films do not reflect as much on their creators, they do employ intimacy to bear the souls of their cast of characters with precision. And within this claustrophobic chamber form, they become to varying degrees a reflection of the flexible whole of the human form – emotionally, mentally and physically. We could then perceive Howell and Griffiths as the two musical instruments in their human sonata, their feelings of grief and guilt; anger and pride summoning up a tumultuous melody. Together the piano and cello, or violin and cello engage with melodic civility, and clash with incivility.

Still from Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat, 1944
Lifeboat, dir. Alfred Hitchcock (1944)

The Lighthouse could be described as an effective psychological and suspenseful tale of two men trapped in the midst of a violent storm, that develops into a well executed haunting tale as events take a tragic turn. Yet it should be described as a journey – firstly, the journey to an unenviable posting, where past demons surface to spark tensions between the two men. Then secondly, a journey as it evolves out of drama with the psychological tension rolling across with the storm clouds, although rumbles of thunder can be heard in the early dramatic and awkward sparring. One of the effective means of structuring this story that Crow and his co-writers pursue is opposition, which ties into the aforementioned idea of, “conscious man versus his unconscious habitat.” While Howell and Griffith share the same Christian name, they are deeply contrasting characters. In the opening scenes prior to the arrival on Smalls Island, Howell is introduced as a gentle and religious man, while Griffith is seen sparring in a bare knuckle fight in a tavern. Yet through opposition a natural tension is created, which is only too important in any dramatic story that requires provocation. Here it is as a prelude to their battle with the storm that leaves doubt as to their unity in the face of adversity. In one perfectly conceived moment that emphasises this division, Griffith expresses his love of the sound of the waves upon the rocks: “This is peace. True peace out here. There is nothing else like it.” Howell replies: “Peace? There is nothing here Thomas. Nothing. Waves and rocks is all”, to which Griffith says, “There we have it, peace.”

The Lighthouse Keeper in the shadow of Smalls Island Lighthouse
“Griffith speaks of the island has having its own way of life, ambition and appetite for ships that draws it and man into conflict.”

A psychological story, The Lighthouse incorporates internal and external opposition by way of the emphasis on the psychological fragility of the mind. The irony exposed is of the mind as a double-edged blade. Our mind allows us to imagine without which human ingenuity would not be possible – the building of ships and the navigation across the oceans, to the building of lighthouses to protect ships nearing the shoreline. Whereas the mind is our internal engine, human ingenuity has created something external that envelopes us, and the mind of Howell and the lighthouse itself is symbolic of this. Crow and his co-writers’ skill is in offsetting the ferocity of nature with a character tormented by his own mind, as well as the very structure created by man’s ingenuity. It is one where the natural meets spatial and psychological torment. And in The Lighthouse, the stark reality of the mind as a deceiver, its propensity for deception is a potent source of the film’s suspense and haunting quality. To Howell in his deluded state his mind is to be trusted, yet his consciousness is a falsity and one similar to that which we project onto our world. And this projection creates the world as a mystical or spiritual force with its own consciousness, almost predatory the way in which Griffith speaks of the island has having its own way of life, ambition and appetite for ships that draws it and man into conflict. In one moment he points towards the sound of the howling storm and tells Howell: “That is the only God that answers out here.” In this moment one senses the careful oppositional construction between the two men. We have Griffiths who sees nature and the world itself as a spiritual force, versus Howell whose guilt-heavy conscience propels him towards God, and the orchestration of his own verbal monotone minimalist prayer or hymn that he sings religiously at night. Both are propelled in their own respective directions courtesy of past tragedy, stressing how the spiritual emerges from man rather than a spiritual being or autonomous force itself. In this context God and faith are a human reaction to the human experience. Yet in one potent moment, Griffith’s words iterate how a spirituality is ingrained in our perspective of the world – almost an instinctive fail safe. Raging against Howell’s turn to religion to help him in his guilt-ridden grief he snarls: “If he can put us into this world, this darkness, this pit of pain and cruelty, then we are nothing to him. So you pray, pray and grovel. See if he listens.”

The Lighthouse is beyond an entertaining tale of two men trapped in the midst of the storm. Within a narrative that transitions from a drama to a suspenseful and haunting psychological horror, it touches upon ideas of religion, spiritualism and mysticism, as well as the psychological. While it is an intriguing film with merit, it is likely to fall between the cracks of the collective cinematic consciousness. An effectively told story with an introspective ontological curiosity, it champions the intelligence and integrity of genre cinema, while managing to not sacrifice itself as a well told yarn.

The Lighthouse is available to own on DVD in the UK courtesy of Soda Pictures.



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