As this decade draws to a close, many cinephiles are busy cataloging their favorite films of the era: twisting themselves into knots attempting to account for an entire art form, fussing over rankings, and arguing about which Paul Thomas Anderson movie is the best. (It’s The Master.) However, history is wide, not narrow, and overessentializing can be a dangerous exercise. It is safer and more illuminating to pinpoint specific subsets of culture that others may be afraid to broach and address them rigorously—for example, the best movies of the decade that feature seagulls.
Forget 2018’s The Seagull, which is just another of many cinematic reimaginings of the Anton Chekhov play of the same name; there, the eponymous bird is mostly just a metaphor, showing up in the flesh in only one scene, dead. Truly, there are only two gull-related flicks from the past decade that are worth a damn. The first is director Robert Eggers’s newly arrived sophomore feature, The Lighthouse, a supernatural period piece featuring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as grizzled and ornery Maine lighthouse keepers. The second is The Shallows, the 2016 survival movie starring Blake Lively as a surfer facing off with a great white on a remote beach in Mexico. Did you forget about that last one? If you’re a true devotee of seagull cinema, you shouldn’t have.
To properly evaluate these movies in relationship to their gulls, it’s important to first acknowledge that, as films,The Lighthouse and The Shallows are not as different they might superficially appear to be. Sure, one features over-the-top shark chomp shots, surfing scored to explosive bursts of EDM, and budget smartphone screenshots.
The other is shot in black and white 35mm, stars two great actors who both deliver performances that rank among their best, and includes sections of dialogue that could have reasonably been written by Herman Melville. So what? Both are also claustrophobic horror movies focusing on characters driven to the edge of their sanity when faced with their own mortality, marooned with wild ocean on every side of them. And in both, cute-as-hell seagulls are featured heavily and deployed well.
Following its festival debut earlier this year, The Lighthouse became notorious for its farting and a scene in which Robert Pattinson’s character, possibly named Ephraim Winslow, has sex with a mermaid. In truth, though, this sea creature is far from the most significant mystical presence in the film. That, my friends, is a one-eyed seagull. The matted little fellow crosses Winslow’s path like a black cat in the first act of the film, wobbling around in front of him ominously, preventing entrance to a shed. Later, he proves to be the ringleader of a whole cadre of birds that set the wheels of Pattinson’s character’s demise in motion, after he brutally beats one of them to death. If you take Willem Dafoe’s tyrannical elder lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake at his word, the birds contain the souls of dead sailors, and Winslow has disturbed them. (Seagulls are gentle and majestic beasts, to which anyone who’s opened a bag of chips on the beach can surely attest.)
As the farm’s livestock and a particularly aggressive crow do in Eggers’s debut feature, The Witch, the birds then seem to assist in destroying the fabric of Winslow’s reality. They encircle and threaten Pattinson’s character at pivotal moments; their cries blend with the cacophonous winds and synths in the soundtrack, deafening him as he loses track of time and space. One eventually wonders whether it’s wiser to side with the birds here. Toward the end of the film, Wake claims that the perpetually drunk Winslow’s version of events is incorrect, or pulled out of context, and paints him as a greedy, violent, and deeply delusional young man. This paranoid subjectivity in The Lighthouse is possible because Eggers includes no flashbacks or expository scenes—nothing that could function as a “true” account of who Winslow and Wake are. On this “godforsaken rock,” as Wake puts it, stable definitions of right and wrong, and lies and truth, are impossible and irrelevant.
This is all too opposite from The Shallows, in which director Jaume Collet-Serra—who has helmed a laundry list of Liam Neeson star-vehicle disaster movies including Non-Stop and The Commuter—seems to sidestep every opportunity to move into the realm of the subjective. Lively’s Texan surfer-tourist Nancy Adams is what she appears to be: a larger-than-life heroine, improbably resilient and ingenious even as she starves and bleeds to death. Insofar as there is any interpretative murkiness to the narrative, it stems mostly from the well-monikered “Steven Seagull,” a wounded bird who camps out with Nancy on a rock—just out of reach of the determined shark that is terrorizing her—for the better part of the film.
Steven—played by the real seagull “Sully”—gets nearly as much screen time as Nancy does, forming a welcome visual counterpoint to Lively’s character as she stitches and rewraps her gruesome shark bite. But as the film goes on, with increasingly erratic temporal jumps, his gentle omnipresence starts to feel increasingly unreal. Most of the film’s most implausible scenes involve him. At a moment when Nancy seems to be accepting impending death as high tide approaches, for instance, she takes a moment to snap Steven’s dislocated wing into place, with an amount of force that should have crushed the bird. Later, she floats Steven out to sea on an unstable shard of surfboard. For some viewers, it may prove to be the most hair-raising action in the film; it feels more important that Steven’s life be spared than Lively’s, because she is a dumb human and he is an incredibly charming little seagull.
Defying every law of physics, though, Steven resurfaces on the beach after—MAJOR SPOILER ALERT FOR THIS 2016 BLAKE LIVELY MOVIE—Nancy survives a battle with the shark and is Heimliched back to the land of the living. At least, Nancy seems to glimpse him gazing at her quizzically, just before a vision of her deceased mother appears to her. The audience is left to wonder: Is Steven part of that dream? Is he a proxy for Nancy’s mom, representing her hope and tenacity? The film’s ensuing epilogue is corny enough to make one wish that those shots were actually Nancy’s visions from beyond the grave, or that Steven had been a fabrication the whole time. Sadly, there’s no definitive evidence that the film’s screenwriter was working on that level; it’s more likely that they just didn’t want to show an adorable bird drown or be eaten.
Nonetheless, Steven, who has no essential function in the movie’s primary plot, injects something pleasantly cryptic into The Shallows’ simple disaster story, serving as a strange control variable in the midst of Nancy’s downward spiral. This is true, also, for Winslow’s one-eyed nemesis in The Lighthouse. In both movies, gulls function partially as harbingers of doom, circling around human remains and rotting whale carcasses, as well as ciphers on to which the characters project their fears, insecurities, and impossible hopes. Eggers and Collet-Serra’s multivalent use of these undersung fowl more than justifies the anointing of The Lighthouse and The Shallows as the two silver-screen seagull masterpieces of the 2010s. Don’t forget the important work that these birds did in these films, in which the other creatures—sharks, mermaids, and humans, primarily—are getting all the credit. Give these gulls all the decade accolades they deserve.
Winston Cook-Wilson is a writer based in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Grantland, and The Guardian.