No Man’s Land

The Pinteresque Terror of The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse (2019) | A24

Apart from the known and the unknown, what else is there?
– The Homecoming, Harold Pinter


“A man in a room,” Harold Pinter wrote in 1960, “will sooner or later receive a visitor.”

It’s an absurdly self-evident statement, but sit with it for a moment and it’s liable to crawl under your skin. Who could that visitor be? What could they want? And, worst of all, how could you ever be sure the answers you receive are true?

Here, in the insidious invasion of the mundane, lies the core of Pinteresque terror. Across the decade of masterworks that launched his career as a playwright, the simplest of spaces—a ceiling, a floor, and four walls, one of them translucent to the audience—become psychological battlegrounds in an existentially uncanny void. As Pinter observes in the program notes for a production of his debut, The Room, no matter what might transpire between any room’s inhabitant and visitor, the former “will have been subjected to alterations.” 

Again, it’s a simple notion that we all live with every day—each of us will be changed by our next encounter with another person, no matter how slightly. But let it linger a moment. How does it feel to know that the person reading these words will soon cease to exist in this form?

It’s enough to send you running for the nearest comfortably familiar place. But by virtue of the unique tools available to the dramatist, Pinter invalidates the concept of comfortable familiarity. Any door in a Pinter play is a gateway for metaphysical transformation, and while few viewers can easily explain why so many of his essentially realist works leave them shaken to their foundations, the effect is inherently theatrical. By using and abusing audience awareness that for the length of the story this stage is the only space in existence, Pinter’s plays become intensely claustrophobic. Whoever enters could have been manifested only at that moment, and annihilated as soon as they exit.

The majority of Pinter’s most celebrated plays have been adapted to the screen, and in the process, they tend to lose their most unnerving effects. The greatest damnation that can be levied at any stage adaptation is that it’s “uncinematic,” and so virtually any theatrical script will be “opened up” in moving to the screen. As the camera roves beyond the confines of the originally scripted environment, the expansion is often pleasurable; from Hamlet to Doubt, stories that depend on illusion to shift locales can now be told literally. But in Pinter’s case, the results can be disastrous.

In The Room, Pinter’s first and most overt examination of the anxiety inherent to a visit from a stranger, a paranoid woman is thrown into fits of horror as mysterious figures enter her flat until she’s driven inexplicably blind. The play’s terror relies on audience identification with the protagonist’s limited perspective, but in Robert Altman’s 1987 adaptation, the camera frequently ventures beyond the scripted walls to track the slow approach of these ambiguously nefarious visitors. As pure as Altman’s intentions may have been in attempting to build dread, his technique unravels the story. To this woman, her room may as well be the only space on earth; for the story to be effective, the audience should be similarly restricted and so allowed to see these visitors as rough manifestations of whatever churns in the offstage abyss.

It would be natural, then, to assume it’s simply impossible to recreate Pinter’s effects on-screen. What cinematic setting could ever replicate this feeling of an ordinary space that simultaneously exists in a howling metaphysical void?

“So happy to see all the praise Robert Eggers’ brilliant The Lighthouse is receiving,” Ari Aster tweeted in May 2019 following the Cannes premiere of his friend’s sophomore effort. “It’s an extraordinary film and stands instantly as one of the great existential comedies. Harold Pinter would be proud.”

For anyone expecting that Eggers’ follow-up to The Witchhis instant-classic tale of 17th-century religious terror, Satanic ecstasy, and demonic livestock—might be similarly supernatural and austere, the comparison was surprising. It’s one, however, that Eggers echoes in the press notes for The Lighthouse, likening his manic two-hander to “an early Pinter play” in its focus on “the struggle for dominance…of the scene, the beat within the scene, or the story itself.” 

While Eggers refrains from citing any particular Pinter work, the notion of “an early Pinter play” conjures the head-spinning run of work the playwright created between the 1957 premiere of The Room and his 1964 two-act masterpiece The Homecoming. Alongside 11 other scripts completed in just seven years by the future Nobel laureate, these plays comprise a dazzling and fearless canon of psychic dread, works that would see him labeled a foundational practitioner of “Theatre of the Absurd” even as his effects tend to be far subtler—and far more unnerving—than his mid-century absurdist peers.

In July 2019, A24—boutique distributor and early adopter of both Eggers and Aster—released a podcast in which these two horror heavyweights discuss their new features. “I can’t really think of any other work that feels like Harold Pinter,” Aster remarks, part of a volley of compliments he launches at his clearly bashful friend, “and [The Lighthouse] felt to me a total spiritual sibling.” 

Based solely on such clues, it seemed most natural to assume in the lead-up to Eggers’ film that The Lighthouse might resemble The Caretaker, Pinter’s 1959 three-act play concerning two dysfunctional brothers and the vagrant who becomes the pawn in a battle of wills waged in their dilapidated London row house. The cramped and dingy interiors of Eggers’ film are certainly reminiscent of the cluttered attic that plays host to The Caretaker’s agony, and the rich monochrome palette provided by Eggers’ The Witch cinematographer Jarin Blaschke could intercut seamlessly with the infinite shades of gray created for Clive Donner’s 1963 adaptation by director of photography (and soon-to-be auteur in his own right) Nicolas Roeg.

While The Caretaker is not a true two-hander, the three characters seldom share the stage, and so the story unfolds in a series of verbal duels between the vagrant—introduced as Davies, though he goes by the assumed name Jenkins, and seems at times unsure of which identity is truly his own—and either prim Aston or menacing Mick. Through these odd, elliptical confrontations, The Caretaker becomes the ideal demonstration of another recurring Pinter theme: how words can be used as weapons, as easily turned inwards as outwards. “One way of looking at speech,” Pinter said in a 1962 address, “is [as] a constant stratagem to cover nakedness,” and as Davies grows frantic in his climactic standoff with Aston, proposing increasingly desperate solutions that might prevent his expulsion, Aston’s silence makes clear that he has control.

Aston’s most vulnerable moment, meanwhile, sees him spill his beans to Davies, finally opening up about the psychiatric trauma he’s repressed for years. The fugue-like monologue marks a key dynamic shift; now in possession of these details, Davies can pick at Aston’s insecurities, generating the friction that will lead to their ultimate schism. Once beans have been spilled, the possibility of alliance is forfeited.

If only Thomas Wake, venerable wickie at the center of The Lighthouse, had been in that attic alongside Aston. Wake, whose familiar space is invaded by the enigmatic and unstable Winslow—or Howard, or both, or neither—knows full well the disaster that can come from unfiltered honesty, and so when his increasingly addled protégé becomes tempted to reveal his own secrets, Wake implores him, “Don’t be spillin’ any’a yer beans to me.” So long as some secrets are held, an equilibrium can be maintained, uneasy as it may be. And as soon as Winslow—driven to distraction in the isolation forced by a storm that both men superstitiously believe to be his fault—finally does spill those beans in his own hazy monologue of trauma and regret, doom is inevitable for both wickies. Though in the morning, Wake is tempted to use Davies’ tactic of leveraging this new information to control Winslow, he softens in recognition of his partner’s spike in emotional volatility. “Spillin’ yer beans,” Wake sighs in evidently genuine pity. “Look what it’s done to ye.” Communication is transformative, and often disastrously so, particularly in a confined space where the only options are speech, silence, or the savagery that can erupt from an excess of either.

Donner’s adaptation of The Caretaker, with its Lighthouse-esque cramped gloom, is effective cinema, but it saps the story of its original eeriness. Adaptations of Pinter’s housebound horrors are compelled by film grammar to feature establishing shots, and this concession can be mitigated by a savvy director like William Friedkin, whose alien eye in his adaptation of The Birthday Party comes closer than any other to maintaining Pinteresque paranoia while nominally opening up the story. But Donner makes the ruinous choice to frequently leave the central room—when Davies is cast out by Aston but welcomed back by Mick, there’s tremendous disorientation in seeing Davies leave the stage and then immediately re-enter after some unknown passage of time. But by shifting Davies’ and Mick’s discussion of Aston’s cruelty out to a cafe, the beat becomes commonplace; if Davies sneers and snarls in the attic, the Pinter door provides constant danger, while the public setting leaves Davies in comparative safety. And though Donner may use eerily vacant streets for many of his establishing shots, the question begged is the relatively benign Where is everyone? rather than the skin-crawling What could be out there? 

In The Lighthouse, Wake and Winslow frequently venture beyond the four (exceptionally tall) walls of their home base, and the film, with its explosive waves, veils of fog, and swarms of ominous seabirds, is nothing if not cinematic. But in this canny choice of location, Robert Eggers (and his brother/co-writer, Max, who initially brought his sibling the idea of a nautical tale of terror which the elder Eggers then conflated with a riff on the true story of the so-called “Smalls Island Incident”) is able to create the feeling of two men voluntarily stranded in the closest thing to a void available on Earth. In frequent establishing shots that centralize this small beacon that’s theoretically off the coast of Maine but may as well be in the furthest reaches of space, a lighthouse becomes the only conceivable locale that could realistically mimic a Pinter room. The early moments, which see Wake and Winslow enter the island from an oblivion as complete as the wings beyond a stage, promise that this rock is the only place that matters, and so the essential questions become whether these two men will remain the island’s sole inhabitants and whether either will leave intact.

Perhaps the most distinctly unifying plot element in Pinter’s early domestic dramas is the tendency for protagonists to end up spiritually destroyed, remaining alive, but—from the surreal blinding that closes The Room to the subtler deterioration of Davies’ agency—in some way transformed for the worse. It’s a common conceit in horror; both of Ari Aster’s features detail the incremental degradation of their protagonists, be it the total annihilation that closes Hereditary or the nihilistic catharsis of Midsommar’s Dani, who’s described in the closing passage of Aster’s screenplay as having “surrendered to a joy known only by the insane.” This distinctly Pinteresque image suggests that his frequent name-dropping of the playwright is no casual choice, but where Aster’s destructions are explicit, the itchy anxiety of Pinteresque terror emerges from the unknowability of the mechanism.

The Lighthouse closes with its own destructive transformation, as Winslow finally climbs to the top of the lighthouse, gazing upon the Fresnel lens to which Wake has continually denied him access and so achieving the closest thing this deranged young man has to an overarching motivation (beyond, of course, a constant search for masturbation locations). Overwhelmed by the beacon’s seductive power, Winslow experiences an awe that can be verbalized only as histrionic shrieks; something in this light has acted as a catalyst, but as Eggers declines to invite us into Winslow’s point of view, we’re left to wonder what that transformative agent might be.

As a dispassionate force capable of engendering ruinous transformation, the light calls to mind the central mysterious agent of Pinter’s one-act play A Slight Ache, in which a pompous lay-scholar named Edward becomes irrationally irritated by the mute matchseller lingering outside his home, inviting the man in and berating him until Edward’s deepest anxieties emerge and then overflow, seemingly destroying his psyche. The play closes with Edward’s wife—now erotically obsessed with the stoic vendor—handing her ruined husband the matchseller’s tray and casting him out. A Slight Ache was initially conceived as radio drama, and so the matchseller remains as functionally inanimate to the listener as the Fresnel lens is to the viewer, an inert object that amplifies the innermost qualities of whoever happens to be nearby. As Wake ascends to the beacon each night, the light seems to serve as a spiritual salve for this veteran seaman, who strips down and gazes in languid reverence; meanwhile, in Winslow’s glorious ascension, the dial is cranked on this lapsed timberman’s instability until his mind snaps and he’s left more thoroughly destroyed than even the most tragic Pinter protagonist.

This climax would seem the most apt point of comparison to H.P. Lovecraft, whose name has been frequently cited in connection with The Lighthouse. Lovecraft’s unspeakable cosmic horrors often leave his characters mentally shattered, but where Lovecraft’s stories tend to be explicitly supernatural—from the “monster of vaguely anthropoid outline” of “The Call of Cthulu” to the mutagenic meteorite of “The Colour Out of Space”—Eggers’ film stands up to scrutiny as a work of realism, albeit one with room for infinite audience interpretation. Despite frequent nightmares that bleed increasingly into Winslow’s waking perspective, the closest thing to a traditionally supernatural occurrence in The Lighthouse is the Fresnel’s eerie autonomous opening as it offers its secrets to Winslow. But given the viewer is by now fully aware that Winslow is prone to intrusive hallucination, even this cannot be considered as true a breach of naturalism as the delicious levitation that closes The Witch.

In this ability to create overwhelming dread amidst a quotidian scenario, The Lighthouse aligns itself most of all with the capstone to Pinter’s early run: The Homecoming, in which a philosopher named Teddy brings his wife Ruth home to meet his estranged family, a quartet of variously grotesque men—unstable father Max, fastidious uncle Sam, and brothers Lenny and Joey, respectively a sadistic pimp and vapid boxer. The characters’ interactions are tense to the point of mania from the moment the curtain rises, but once Ruth walks through that Pinter door, their behavior slides irrevocably into the bizarre. Ruth’s first encounter with Lenny sees the angry young man demand physical intimacy from a sister-in-law he didn’t know existed just moments earlier and culminates in Ruth attempting to force a drink of water down Lenny’s throat. The play closes with Ruth electing to remain at the house as de facto matriarch/communal sexual partner while the nonplussed Teddy returns to their children in America, and the curtain falls on a casually horrifying tableau: Lenny watches from the corner as Ruth sits resplendent in an easy chair and allows Joey to lay his head in her lap while Max falls to his knees in apoplexy and Sam—having moments earlier died of an apparent heart attack, much to Max’s annoyance—lies prone before them.

The Homecoming is a kitchen-sink drama told with the illogical logic of a nightmare. While every event in the play is technically realistic, it’s also pervasively unnatural, including dialogue fraught with such irrational tension that the audience could be forgiven for wondering if the play takes place in Hell. But as the story features no strict breach of reality, its uncanny horror serves as an apotheosis of this phase of Pinter’s career: if nothing strange has happened, we’re left to eternally wonder, then why did everything feel so strange? This same question could be asked of so many occurrences across the nightmarishly realistic The Lighthouse—there’s no reason to think the one-eyed seagull perpetually haranguing Winslow is anything but natural, and yet with every successive encounter, the bird seems increasingly weighted with unnatural dread. 

There is no transformative door in The Lighthouse, but the perimeters of the island serve as their own equivalent membrane onto liminal reality. The morning after their return vessel fails to arrive, Winslow suggests he take the dory to investigate only for the enraged Wake to inform him that, in fact, several weeks have elapsed since their abortive departure. We have every reason to believe either man could be deranged, but as this derangement is derived from their surroundings, it requires no supernatural leap to suggest that stepping foot on this rock has subjected their reality to a sea-change, transforming their typical viewpoints into something rich and strange.

The Homecoming, like any of Pinter’s early plays, is open to a multitude of interpretations, but Pinter did not create puzzles to be solved so much as fever dreams to be absorbed. And, for as many “explainer” articles as have already been published, the same is true of The Lighthouse. The mind reels at the number of clickbait pieces that might have purported to “explain” Pinter had social media existed in the 1960s, but his plays are not riddles, and they tend to lack clear interpretive handles, a nervy ambiguity that sets him apart from his more didactic absurdist peers—no Pinter play has anything resembling the comfortable metaphoric guardrails of Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros with its literal transformation of characters into the namesake apex herbivore—and so they use their naturalism to burrow under the skin of a receptive audience member and stay there, quite likely for life.

It may be unnerving to find oneself unable to easily interpret a film, but there’s something even more unnerving about the modern urge to solve every story. A film with a clear knot to unravel may nag the viewer until completion, but with that potential for catharsis—one the internet is happy to convince us is possible for even the most deliberately ambiguous stories—a solvable work can never be haunting in any lasting way. This impatient urge, borne of the instant-reaction culture that arose alongside social media, is one Robert Eggers flouts to the point that it seems the director may be subjecting the viewer to the same assaultive mischief Wake lobs at Winslow in their early days together. Like the best Pinter plays, pondering The Lighthouse is a game that can certainly be won—it simply requires the viewer to define “winning” as the opportunity to synthesize unanswerable mystery into something personally enlightening, an exercise that forces them to look inwards, and one that will be necessarily solitary given how this frantic arrangement of abstractions will resonate differently with every viewer’s history and biases. The Lighthouse is a gift to receptive audiences, but that gift will be an infective uncertainty liable to leave them just as stranded in angst as Winslow. 

Or should we call him Howard? And how can we be sure, really? Should we even bother to try, or would that agonizing only end in our own mental flameout? As Pinter wrote in that 1960 examination of the paranoia inherent to meeting a stranger, “The desire for verification is understandable, but cannot always be satisfied. There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal.”

Like Winslow, plenty of filmgoers already feel drawn back to the eerie allure of this beacon, lining up to gaze once more before collapsing in awe. But no matter how many additional beans the film might spill on repeat viewings, the revelations will only transform the story, leaving it different but no less disturbing.

Though Pinter is among a handful of playwrights selected in 1961 to illustrate Martin Esslin’s coinage of the term “Theatre of the Absurd,” there’s another classification to which he has become more uniquely associated: “Comedy of Menace.” First used by David Campton as the subtitle for his own play, The Lunatic View, the designation would soon be taken up by critic Irving Wardle to describe Pinter’s first full-length play, The Birthday Party, and the term would stick as definitional for this absurdly unique absurdist even as Campton’s play fell into obscurity. 

There is a precise blend of comedy and menace in Pinter’s scripts, with neither gaining full dominance and each only heightening the effects of the other. In The Caretaker, verbal duels briefly halt for a wordless struggle over a duffle, which the three characters snatch from one another in a ridiculous sequence drawing as much on vaudevillian slapstick as naturalistic drama. But undergirding the physical comedy, there’s a nagging current of menace; Davies’ agency is explicitly tied to his possessions, with his quest to walk to a nearby borough and obtain his identification papers leaving him at the mercy of Mick and Aston’s whims while they put off providing the shoes he continually requests. Such fraught burlesque is a common feature of absurdism, and as Wake and Winslow’s drunken paranoia explodes into increasingly frenzied alternating howls of “What?” Abbott and Costello come to mind just as easily as Cain and Abel.

Ari Aster’s early classification of The Lighthouse as an “existential comedy” may have seemed initially incongruous with expectations for an Eggers work, but the film is absurd from the earliest moments—a common interpretation aligns Winslow’s lifestyle of menial chores with Sisyphus, and it’s the Sisyphean task of living that first gave birth to the concept of absurdism as an existential condition simultaneously bemusing and horrific. With a story filled to the brim with farts—one reported to have initially included a match cut from the lighthouse to Winslow’s erection before cooler heads prevailed—Eggers seems to openly invite laughter; after delivering a sensational debut featuring overt supernatural horror and virtually no laughs (beyond a potential startled outburst in response to a climactic goat attack), the young director evinces an admirable urge to invert that dynamic for his follow-up. By delivering overt comedy that eschews hallmarks of traditional horror, Eggers stakes his claim as an auteur capable of creating a cohesive canon no matter how stylistically disparate his films may go on to be.

Following the London premiere of The Caretaker, critic Leonard Russell expressed frustration that audiences saw humor in Davies’ tragic lot, but Pinter was quick with a reply, penning an open letter that would provide one of his most enduring pearls of wisdom: “Where the comic and the tragic (for want of a better word) are closely interwoven, certain members of an audience will always give emphasis to the comic as opposed to the other, for by so doing they rationalize the other out of existence.”

There’s a steady ebb and flow between comedy and menace across the first half of The Lighthouse, but once the wickies are stranded by the storm, the gap closes until the final moments see humor and horror woven so tightly they merge. Winslow experiences his transformative, nigh-psychedelic awe, and then immediately tumbles backward down a flight of stairs, grunting all the way with the exaggerated physics of a cartoon before the scene fades to the outrageously horrific image of his still-living body being picked apart by seagulls (thereby sealing the Greek-mythic lens, pivoting Winslow from Sisyphus to Prometheus in a reading that fits comfortably alongside all the foregoing analysis while leaving room for yet more interpretation, a testament to the film’s infinite multidimensionality). This closing tableau is so unexpected and histrionic that for anyone with the constitution to hang on til the end of such an aggressively strange film, the most natural gut response would seem to be shocked laughter—it was all leading up to that?

It’s hard to imagine Eggers would be troubled by a good appreciative laugh at such tragic audacity. Because, of course, that laughter will fade, and then the viewer will be left stranded with all the terror that’s been accumulating beneath Wake’s farts and Winslow’s facefuls of excrement. As that viewer walks out into the light, they may even find that fading laughter giving rise to a scream.

But, of course, that urge will be suppressed. No experience as mundane as entering a comfortably familiar multiplex could leave anyone so spiritually broken. That would be absurd.