To put it bluntly, “The Lighthouse” is a special work of cinema. It is a true accomplishment when a movie effectively communicates its message to its audience, but it is a rare feat when a film succeeds at consigning the very feelings of the madness of its characters upon its viewers as if it were their own. The moment I left the theater, my senses felt out of tune to reality. The silence felt louder than it did before. Corridors felt longer than they did before. The colors of the world seemed unnecessary as if the blue of the sky was just a coat of paint. The idea of speaking out loud was genuinely repulsive, and so I drove home in a comforting silence that allowed me to hold onto this ethereal feeling as long as I could. There have been numerous occasions when a film has made me feel immediate powerful feelings after my viewing, and while I cannot even be completely sure I can accurately identify what this sensation even was, I have never experienced any other instance of leaving a film and feeling anything of this sort before.
The film is about the story of two lighthouse keepers, played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, in the 1890s who are marooned on an island with nothing but themselves and their fleeting sanities. The premise seems so simple, and yet, in the hands of any lesser talents, this could easily be just another movie. Director Robert Eggers had only ONE other feature film on his resume before this: “The Witch” (2015). But even with his relative inexperience, Eggers proves he is one of the most talented filmmakers working today with this creation. In an interview, he mentions how the original concept was created by his brother, Max, but he struggled to produce a screenplay he liked with it. So, Robert, like the good brother he is, asked if he could take the concept and it is so apparent that he had a clear vision for this film from the very beginning (Don’t worry. Max is given a screenplay credit on the film). From the first moments, we are greeted with a haunting, almost purgatory-like environment encapsulated by a veil of fog that keeps even the horizon beyond the boundaries of our vision. We are in Robert’s vision and feel exactly what he had hoped we would.
Pattinson’s Winslow is a former timber man from Canada who keeps going from job to job, hoping he finds something he enjoys well enough to settle down with and start a life. Dafoe’s Tom is a career mariner who can no longer live a life at sea because he injured his leg, and so he works as a lighthouse keeper (They call themselves “wickies”). The two men have an incredible dynamic, oscillating between brotherly affection to hostile mistrust at any given moment. Tom is borderline tyrannical in his authority as Winslow’s superior, and a superstitious man who believes that fighting with seagulls is a bad omen and that the light from the beacon drove his last partner mad. Winslow openly resents Tom at times for his abrasive dictations and believes he spews tall tales to entertain himself and frighten him. And yet, despite this, they still bond over their mutual isolation and hearty doses of alcohol.
While technical stylings can often be considered a cosmetic afterthought by some audiences, in this instance they are integral to creating the setting, and therefore the telling of the story. For starters, Mark Korven produced an unearthly score that compliments every single scene with a hyperphysical force of the unknown. Jarin Blaschke is also perfect with his cinematography. The aspect ratio of the film is 1.19:1, which essentially means the projection is close to a square (1:1 would be a square) as opposed to the widescreen views we are given in most films, just adds to the sense of confinement both we and the characters feel. And the film is shot on 35mm film with a filter eliminating all colors except for black, white, and some blues, creating an almost authentic feel to the rustic lighthouse location. Most frames of the film are lit by a single on-screen source, which combined with the other techniques utilized, completes the ominous and visually stunning creation.
The environment is as much of a character as the two actual people we know. The titular lighthouse feels alive as if it can interact and sway events by sending a seagull or changing the weather. As if it were a sort of wonderland, this dank, wooden shack seems to exist completely on the periphery of reality. Life does not interact with anything beyond the perimeter of what is visible. Once the characters arrive in the opening scene, there is no proof that anybody else is even aware of its existence. No boats are seen approaching it, no supplies are dropped off, and no communications are ever delivered. It is a wholly isolated area completely shrouded in mystery.
Willem Dafoe delivers one of the best performances of any actor that I have ever seen. He speaks in a nautical dialect, reminiscent of old-timey sailors but very believable as a real person. For those of you who are fans of Greek mythology, he is the stand-in for Proteus, the shapeshifting son of Poseidon. There are no definitive supernatural qualities to him, but through the lens of Winslow’s creeping insanity, Tom represents everything he hates, fears, and desires. This should not belittle Robert Pattinson’s performance though, who is very much on equal footing as his costar. As, Winslow, he wears a façade of unassuming calmness to mask layers of aggression that slowly seep out as the film progresses. It is truly a pleasure to watch these two go at each other in every single scene of the movie.
A surprising quality of the film is that it is fairly comedic. The drunken antics of the two characters can get decently silly, as drunken antics tend to do. And despite the reputation of modern black-and-white films as being pretentious and taking themselves too seriously, there is an impressive amount of fart and pee jokes. Frankly, it makes the experience feel even more real. What else would expect from two gross people who were trapped together in a small confinement for an extended period? Wisely, the film chooses to acknowledges the unkempt aspects of their communal living as a factor contributing to Winslow’s dive into insanity, and I do not think there is a single person who could blame him for that.
“The Lighthouse” is a hypnotic experience to watch. Robert Eggers masterfully transports us to a world he creates. We are both characters, and yet we can relate to none of them. We feel what they feel, even if it is spurred by an unexpected mood swing. Not everything in the film is explicit, which is perfect for the subject matter at hand. Having been given no concrete answers, we are forced to revisit all the experiences we witness and decide for ourselves what they mean. If you are someone who likes things nicely wrapped up with definitive conclusions, then this might be disappointing, but I find it refreshing to know that the filmmakers do not patronize us. They have faith that we can think things through and come to our own conclusions.
It is tremendously apparent how meticulously crafted this film is. Robert Eggers is extremely well versed in the subject matter and creates such an authentic experience. For an idea as simple as two people going mad, “The Lighthouse” contain so much depth. It is my personal favorite film I have seen this year and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
I give “The Lighthouse” an elite 9.6 out of 10
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Runtime: 1 Hour and 49 Minutes