The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers’ highly-anticipated sophomore feature, is arguably the most desired to watch film that premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival as it went on to win best film in the Director’s Fortnight category — deservedly so. Entirely black & white, The Lighthouse was shot on 35mm and presented in the classic Academy ratio of 1.19: 1.
The story consists of the grisly daily lives of two lighthouse keepers as they struggle physically and mentally in their isolated environment off the shore of Maine in the 1890s. Eggers, who undoubtedly proved his ability as a master of the slow-burn, psychological horror in his debut feature, The Witch, beautifully captures the antithesis of this style by continuously pushing the rational boundary for his characters and his audience.
Thomas Wake, the veteran lighthouse keeper, played by Willem Dafoe, and Efraim Winslow, Wake’s protégé played by Robert Pattinson, spend the first third of the film settling into their respective roles by completing grueling, menial labor around their small island. Eggers brilliantly utilizes the claustrophobic aspect ratio to reflect the despair and paranoia slowly corrupting the minds of each character. Their isolation, especially Winslow’s, is a trial similar to that of characters in an Ingmar Bergman or Carl Theodor Dreyer film, as the aspect ratio thrusts the audience right into that same period. Eggers cleverly uses these traditional filmmaking techniques from these prominent directors to set up the tone and atmosphere of the film, but makes it clear from the onset that The Lighthouse will serve as an evident subversion of these classic styles.
As the film progresses, time begins to lose meaning, and the relationship between Wake and Winslow starts to deteriorate along with it. It is in this deterioration that Dafoe and Pattinson can transcend Eggers’ simplistic directorial approach and add layers of raw emotion to their characters. This relationship is further fueled by comically excessive amounts of alcohol and represented by the various drunken dances the two shares together. Dafoe and Pattinson work naturally on screen together, and their chemistry is directly responsible for the success of their respective roles.
While the build-up of The Lighthouse is considerably shorter than the build-up in Eggers’ previous work, the atmosphere of the film directly mirrors that of the impending thunderstorm storm on the isolated pair. As the storm draws nearer, the film coincidentally nears its breaking point. Mainly in part to the acting of Dafoe and Pattinson, when the narrative of the film breaks, it sends the two characters into a Persona like limbo where they both must endure hell. Once the film has snapped, and Eggers has sent the audience down the film’s path of no return, the otherwise tame Bergman elements begin to turn volatile. Once these elements morph into a fever dream, Eggers does not hesitate to send both the audience and his characters through the wringer until the end credits.
However, while the film is exhausting at times, it is within this purgatory that Eggers’ narrative truly flourishes. Each of The Lighthouse character’s desires, fears, and motives become blurred due to their toxic actions. Within these moments, Eggers breaks free from the traditional filmmaking rules he established in the first part of the film — it is in these ambiguous, despair-fueled moments where Eggers’ creativity is on full display. Gratuitous violence against a seagull, the use of maritime lore, and the consistent gas-lighting from both characters allow doubt festering in their minds to manifest itself within the audience’s minds.
No matter how many layers Eggers continuously added to The Lighthouse — the simplistic approach to the film allows the audience to follow Wake and Winslow down a black hole of isolation and suffering.
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