Robert Eggers’s Sophomore Film Is One of the Best This Year.
Directed By Robert Eggers / 2019
Written by Max Eggers & Robert Eggers
Every year, if we’re lucky, there comes at least one film where the standard playbook is tossed out, resulting in a weird, baffling, and wonderful motion picture. This year’s entry is Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse. It is, without a doubt, one of the most audacious films I’ve seen in quite some time. I loved every minute of it.
Robert Pattinson (from this year’s High Life, and, yes, the Twilight series) is Ephraim Winslow, a young man who’s brought to work at a lighthouse kept by Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake. As the guy in charge, Wake makes Winslow perform all manners of menial, physically taxing and degrading tasks, all the while criticizing and belittling Winslow’s performance of his duties. Wake’s sole task, it seems, is to watch the light at night, and he never lets Winslow into the upper decks of the lighthouse. There are secrets up there that Wake is desperate to keep. As the weather on the island worsens, the two men are trapped together. Their stores of food start to run out, and their sanity begins to fray.
Writer/director Eggers ventures into similar emotional territory as his last film, The Witch. Like The Witch, The Lighthouse features a small group of characters (just two in this case) who are isolated from the greater community, both physically and socially. The family in The Witch was cast out of their colony for their heretical religious beliefs, while the two lighthouse keepers have put themselves in a sort of self-exile. The heads of each ‘household’ claim to know what’s what, but they’ve built their little kingdoms out of lies, and emotionally abuse and gaslight their young charges to keep them in line. This stewpot of abuse, isolation, and growing paranoia ushers in what seem to be a series of supernatural events, but both films could be read as if those events were merely the distorted perceptions of people whose minds have been pushed to the edge.
Where the two films differ is that The Lighthouse retains a sense of the absurd. To call The Witch humorless is a bit of an understatement. The Lighthouse, on the other hand, sprinkles in touches of wry humor, even as the situation on the tiny island grows ever more grim. Actions which would be disturbing in one context such as Winslow’s overreaction to the one-eyed seagull or Dafoe’s ‘Sea Curse’ are played out for so long, that they become kind of funny (and Winslow’s response to the curse was a laugh-out-loud moment for me).
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke worked with Eggers on The Witch and the short The Tell Tale Heart. His work complements the mood Eggers strives for in his story-telling perfectly. Blaschke shot The Lighthouse on 35mm Kodak Double-X film. This film stock was first developed in the late 1950’s and has never been reformulated. The soft contrast (further exacerbated by the ever-present fog) lends the film the look of a vintage photograph. The black and white film accentuates the rich textures of all the objects that make up the tiny island: wood, stone, mud, and Willem Dafoe’s face. Deep focus framing, shot with long lenses, and framed in an almost square aspect ratio furthermore shrink the size of Winslow’s world.
By chance I had watched The Shining not very long ago, in preparation for my review of Dr. Sleep. I did not realize that would also be a perfect compliment to The Lighthouse. Both movies feature people trapped in an isolated setting, and increasing madness and paranoia. The tensions between everyone are further worsened by the copious consumption of alcohol (or kerosene sweetened with honey if you’re desperate enough). It just became a matter of time in The Lighthouse for one character to chase another with an axe.