Beacon (2024)

Beacon had its world première at Tribeca 2024, 8 Jun 2024

Beacon opens with Emily (Julia Goldani Telles) on the deck of her boat Winddancer, a little floating island surrounded by nothing but water. Emily is doing a to-camera piece about her six-month solo mission to circumnavigate the globe the old-fashioned way, with a sextant and charts rather than any electronic guidance – “which”, she says, “is actually just like my grandpa did, and it’s just like my father did.” In other words, Emily is just the last in a long line of family tradition, passed down the generations – although tellingly she is the first woman to have embraced this rite of passage. That sexual difference will come to the fore in a maritime setting mythologised by men.

One might imagine that this is to be a story of isolation and survival on the high seas, like Kon Ichikawa’s Alone Across the Pacific (1963), J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost (2013), Simon Rumley’s Crowhurst (2017) or Baltasar Kormákur’s Adrift (2018) – but no sooner have we heard an audio message from Emily’s grandfather reminding her, “There are no dangerous seas, only dangerous sailors,” than a dangerous sea captures and flips her boat with a gargantuan wave straight out of Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm (2000). When Emily regains consciousness, she may still, metaphorically, be at sea, but she is in a bed very much on land.

Not just any land, though. For Emily is on one of the Magdalena Islands near Cape Horn at the southernmost tip of Chile, in accommodation adjacent to a lighthouse that she recognises as “one of the most inaccessible manmade structures in the world”. Emily is now in the care of a bearded lighthouse keeper, old enough to be her father, with the suitably Melvillean name Ismael (Demián Bichir) – although this Ismael is fixated not on a monstrous white whale, but on the mermaid-like Sirens of seafaring legend that he believes can only be stopped from drowning more men by the light he floods every night across the ocean. 

Surrounded by raging, wintry seas at the end of the world, Emily is now tethered to her host – literally, when he attaches her to him by an umbilicus-like rope as they venture out of the house together amid howling winds. Of these gales, Ismael says, “You listen long enough, they’ll begin speaking to you”, in words that might be warning off madness, or merely announcing it. The only other connection anchoring Emily to civilisation is a radio which rarely seems to get a signal and whose antenna keeps breaking in the tempestuous conditions.

Ismael is contradictory – generous, considerate and solicitous towards his new guest, yet secretive, suspicious and superstitious, with a mad, even megalomaniac streak. “I am the bringer of light,” he will declare to Emily at one point, in a phrase that places him somewhere between civilising tamer of the darkness (like any lighthouse keeper) and Lucifer (literally ‘Light-Bringer’) exiled from Heaven to a cold, dark Hell. Emily constantly struggles to keep up with whether Ismael is, as he himself says, trying to help her get off the island, or whether perhaps he just wants to keep her there with him and is wiling to sabotage her every effort to get home.

Meanwhile Emily has her own secrets – and either one of them is more than capable of gaslighting the other into accepting the most paranoid, unhinged perspectives. For in a secluded environment that becomes an arena, these two people prove no less successful than the unforgiving elements at fuelling each other’s darkest fears and bringing out their monstrous sides, in a battle between the sexes and between the generations that is so polarised and divisive as to make its participants seem like different species. Much as Eva comes to bury her father, she eventually brings the island’s entire patriarchal structure tumbling down – but in doing so, she might, instead of being the film’s heroine, end up becoming its inhuman villainess.

Written by Julio Rojas, Roxy Shih’s Beacon is a claustrophobic two-handed psychodrama that draws on other films about lighthouses and alienation – like Xavier Gens’ Cold Skin (2017), Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018), Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse (2019) and Russell Owen’s Shepherd (2021) – less to cast light on than to obscure the boundaries between the mythic, the psychological and the supernatural. For whether we are watching these two people succumbing in their own distinct ways to cabin fever, or an actual mystic battle between the elemental forces of land and sea, remains clouded in ambiguity – and without a clear beacon to guide them, or indeed us, through this hostile terrain of dangerous seas and even more dangerous sailors, it is all too easy to lose one’s bearings and become lost. Still, ultimately reality must return to these distant shores, bringing with it the revelation that no man – or woman – is an island forever.

strap: Roxy Shih’s paranoid psychodrama lets a shipwrecked young woman and an older male lighthouse keeper lose their bearings together in the mythic darkness

© Anton Bitel