When one finds oneself in deep seclusion, thoughts turn inward. The world becomes alien and the inside of your own mind becomes home to familiar horrors and dark memories. It is in this type of isolation that The Lighthouse takes place…
…Directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch) and written by Eggers and his brother, Max Eggers, The Lighthouse is less of a conventional horror film and more of a cerebral drama. The film has many of the trappings of horror—there’s a monster or two, some violence, and even an ancient curse. But all of this seems largely unimportant in the course of the movie. The majority of the film is not about what is happening or, possibly, what isn’t happening, but instead is about the endless depths of man’s isolation.
The film rests firmly on the shoulders of Robert Pattinson (Twilight) and Willem Dafoe (Shadow of the Vampire). Both actors play lighthouse keepers (or wickies as they are called in the film) tasked with the job of maintaining an isolated lighthouse for four weeks in the 1890s. The men are dropped off at a desolate and remote island that is little more than a large rock. Both know that they will only have each other as company but, unfortunately for both men, they do not get along.
Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow is a sullen, young man who has not worked as a wickie before. His reasons for taking on the job are vague and clearly false. Ephraim believes he’ll be taking care of the dazzling and resplendent light but his expectations are almost immediately dashed. Dafoe’s Thomas Wake tells Ephraim in no uncertain terms that the light is off limits to new wickies. Wake tells Ephraim that his responsibilities for the month will be more domestic in nature. Ephraim paints walls, scrubs floors, and cleans out the chamber pots. It becomes apparent early on that this job is not at all what Ephraim thought it would be. Similarly, he was made to know that he would be isolated, but when Thomas tells Ephraim that they will be sleeping in shifts, we all realize (Ephraim included) that the majority of his time will be spent completely alone. If all of this doesn’t sound like a compelling film, I understand. That was certainly the opinion of many of the people in the theater during the screening that I attended. But for those who have seen The Witch, it will come as no surprise that Eggers can turn a minimalist plot and remote setting into an effective and enjoyable film.
The performances that Dafoe and Pattinson turn in are generally somber, at times hilarious, and always interesting. It is their responses to the isolated and empty world they find themselves in that gives the movie life. Whether they are drinking, arguing, or looking into the luminous form atop the lighthouse, Dafoe and Pattinson manage to give us something surprising in their performances.
Dafoe’s performance as Thomas Wake is crackling with anger and history. He tells story after story of his time in the Navy, much to Ephraim’s displeasure but for the audience these stories are dark and powerful as the sea. Are they completely true? Probably not but that doesn’t diminish their entertainment value or their emotional power.
Pattinson is notably low-key in this film. He spends much of his time on the island glowering and glaring. His moments of explosive emotion are rare but violent. Watching Pattinson perform, one can’t help but wonder if he feels that he still must atone for his role in The Twilight Saga. Anybody who has seen Pattinson’s performances in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis or Maps to the Stars knows he’s more than a teen heartthrob. But, given the dark and painful roles he keeps taking, one gets the impression that he doesn’t quite believe it yet.
The cinematography of The Lighthouse is a subject that many have written about and it is one of the most noticeably powerful aspects to the film. Cinematographer Jarin Blashke (also from The Witch) shot The Lighthouse in the completely unused 1.19:1 aspect ratio, producing an image that is very nearly a square. The decision to film in this ratio and in black-and-white was primarily to make the film look like photographs from the era. The effect is flawless. Pattinson and Dafoe are two faces we have seen on the screen for years (decades in Dafoe’s case). Had this film been shot in any other format, it likely would have appeared as though Dafoe and Pattinson were playing parts in any other film. But in this form there are many moments where the actors look as though two men were sent through time to be in this film. It is amazing to be so drawn into the film that we forget these are movie stars and not grizzled men of the sea. Another effect of the comparatively thin aspect ratio is that it makes the lighthouse that much larger in appearance. The lighthouse and service room fill the entirety of the frame in many shots. With a wider angle, there would be a great deal of negative space on either side of the tall structure. This effectively serves to show us that in the world of this film, there is only the lighthouse. There isn’t even an ocean beyond it.
The Lighthouse takes on horror elements once Ephraim kills a seagull and (possibly) unleashes a curse upon himself, Thomas, and the island. A brutal storm rolls in and leaves Ephraim and Thomas stranded for much longer than the contracted 30 days. How much longer is impossible to tell as both men have long since started to succumb to the isolation and monotony of their lives. From here, Ephraim becomes unhinged as he sees a face from his past and encounters a mythical sea creature. Thomas, meanwhile, grows increasingly authoritarian. His personal history is knotted and confused and he verbally shames Ephraim with increasing enmity. Watching the film, we find ourselves ever more suspicious of both men and wonder which (if not both of them) will snap. It’s a little like watching The Shining without knowing if it is Jack or Wendy who will be going insane.
Thematically, the film is rich with layers of meaning, references to nautical history and lore, and Greek mythology. With so much going on under the surface, it is a relief that the film is light in plot--it gives us that much more time to consider what meanings are obfuscated. It would be impossible to parse out all of the film’s meaning with only one viewing. Small moments demand revisiting and to fully appreciate all that is happening you need to engage with the film. We must listen to every muttered and washed out word and analyze every beautiful image.
The Lighthouse may not be a conventional horror film, but it is a great film in whatever genre it may be. The setting is scary. The performances are some of the best of these actor’s careers, and the story is powerful. With this film, Robert Eggers shows that The Witch was no fluke and that he is a writer/director with staying power.
The Lighthouse is now lighting the way in theaters from A24.
By Mark Gonzales