The Lighthouse Review
With The Witch, Robert Eggers managed to enjoy acclaim from both the arthouse crowd and commercial audiences to win box office returns that far outstripped expectations. But anyone coming into The Lighthouse cold hoping for something that resembles his debut will probably have their hopes flung head first off a cliff onto the jagged rocks below. The period setting, searing originality and flashes of surrealism are still present (as are the birds), but there can’t be many who saw this dark, and often hilarious, descent into isolated insanity coming down the pipeline.
The Lighthouse is the sort of film that recognises the beauty of ugliness in nearly all its forms and turns it into beautiful monochrome imagery. Cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke, shoots on 35mm within a boxy 1.19.1 frame to focus on the downfall of two men in all their debased glory. Piss, shit, blood, vomit and farting has never looked quite this glorious, as we are transported into a time and place that is supposedly from the 1800s, but might as well be on another planet. And with two actors in Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson fully committing to the darkness of their characters, it concocts a blistering and hypnotic energy.
As is the case with many great films, it pays not to know too much about how events play out. The basic outline is set around the arrival of Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Dafoe) on a small, isolated island, who are there to tend to the lighthouse for a four week period before being relieved. They are hardly great bedfellows, with Winslow employed to carry out labour intensive tasks under the bellowed instructions of the bearded Wake. No matter how hard Winslow slaves away he can’t seem to meet the expected standards of his cantankerous boss, who when he isn’t mumbling through his crusty facial hair and slurping down liquor, stows himself away at night getting a little too personal with the lighthouse lamp.
Wake is an old mariner who appears to have seen and done it all at sea and reminds his young apprentice of it at every opportunity. But on this tiny island there’s no escaping each other’s company and the claustrophobic set-up is intensified further within the confines of the slender aspect ratio. The trajectory of the two men seems to be, well, pretty black-and-white after the first act, but from there Eggers constantly plays with our perceptions. The rising resentment between them becomes more palpable with every passing minute and you can only wait in wonder at how all this pent up energy is going to be expended (when Winslow isn’t masturbating to a small mermaid figurine that is).
With such a meagre plot it might seem like a lot is being asked to stick with events but Eggers creates an utterly realistic aesthetic that pulls you in from the opening shot. You can feel every gust of wind and smell the history of the island and rundown living quarters (as well as Wake’s well-timed farts) barely keeping a roof over their heads. Using a special filter to make the stock look like orthochromatic film from the late 19th century, the camera is frequently pushed into close up to capture the strained physicality of the men’s faces. Blaschke’s simple use of shadow and light is hauntingly effective in building both depth of character and an environment that belongs to another time entirely.
What we are seeing is a stand-off built on male posturing, one different from the other, bridged across two distant generations. There’s a father/son dynamic that evolves into a physical and psychological struggle to see if age and wisdom can outlast youth and ingenuity. Eggers also wrote the script and pushes Winslow and Wake into unexpected, homoerotic territory that hooks into their power plays and the way excess male energy can often spiral out of control in unexpected ways.
But it’s the performances of both Dafoe and Pattinson that allow you to make sense of The Lighthouse – even though clarity is thin on the ground for the most part. Dafoe edges it over his younger co-star in a role it seems he was born to play. He eats up the period-accurate dialogue and old sailor’s accent, although you may enjoy the film more on a second viewing with subtitles to guide you along the way. Pattinson continues to improve with every role he undertakes and serves as our unreliable narrator, coping with a range of emotions (sometimes simultaneously) with remarkable ease.
When we aren’t put between Dafoe and Pattinson's constant clashing, Mark Korven’s horn-filled score reverberates through your eardrums. Damian Volpe's sound design plays an equally important role, adding yet more layers of immersive mystery. There’s so much to admire about this film and just as much to unravel, with Eggers leaving enough on the table to be tossed around without ever establishing concrete answers. It seemed like a long four years between The Witch and The Lighthouse arrived in the UK, but if his next one (The Northman) is as good as this the wait will be worth it.
The Lighthouse opens in the UK on January 31.