“Why’d Ya Spill Yer Beans?” – Thomas Wake
A psychological horror only in the vaguest sense, 2019’s The Lighthouse is a strange yet wondrous cinematic venture, incomparable to many other modern releases due to its distinct visual aesthetic and often genre-defying narrative. Led by an outstanding pair of performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, The Lighthouse is the type of film that relentlessly sears itself into its audience’s memory, employing striking visuals, Lovecraftian influences and ominous, atmospheric sound design to craft an unnerving flick that closely resembles the fever-induced night terrors many actual lighthouse keepers endured during their lonesome, off-shore excursions tending to a beacon.
Plot Summary: Off the coast of late 19th-century New England, two lighthouse keepers, the taciturn former lumberjack, Ephraim Winslow, and the elderly lighthouse caretaker, Thomas Wake, set foot on a remote island to begin their monthly duties. But, as the tight-lipped men spend more and more time in each other’s company, a mutual resentment begins to arise as their collective sanity unravels…
Co-written and directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Northman), the story of The Lighthouse is loosely based on a real-life affair that occurred in 1801 known as the Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy, during which two Welsh lighthouse keepers, sharing the name Thomas, became trapped at their station during a storm. When one of the men died, it is said to have driven the other insane. The story also takes some influence from the seafaring literature of renowned authors, including Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson and H.P. Lovecraft, all of which lends the film a sense of historical accuracy and unseen oceanic horror. According to Eggers, earlier versions of the screenplay were more coherent, however, this was later changed as Eggers’ felt the best way to approach the film was to make the audience feel like they were losing their minds alongside the characters. As a result, The Lighthouse can occasionally be quite difficult to follow, yet this ultimately works in the narrative’s favour as the audience, much like the characters, struggle to tell reality from delusion. Even the very concept of time gets thrown out the window by the end of the second act, as it becomes almost impossible to tell how much time has passed between certain scenes, forcing the characters (and the audience) to question exactly how long they have been on the secluded island.
As the only two cast members, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are superb throughout the runtime as fellow lighthouse keepers, Ephraim Winslow and Thomas Wake. Simultaneously appearing layered and accurate to the time period, both characters flourish on-screen thanks to Pattinson and Dafoe’s electric performances, which are only enhanced when combined with the continuously compelling dialogue. This period-accurate dialogue bleeds through every scene, with the screenplay’s emphasis on 19th-century terminology and expressions instantly transporting the audience to the time and setting of the story, enriching Ephraim and Thomas’ persistent back-and-forths as they become increasingly infuriated at their situation. What makes the characters even more interesting is that neither one can be sighted as a reliable point-of-view, no matter how much they claim the other to be untrustworthy or deranged under their boozy breath.
Shot on Double-X stock, which requires much more light to get exposure. So much so, that the crew had to use about fifteen to twenty times more lights on set when filming at night or indoors to successfully capture footage. The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is imposing and hypnotic, exhaustively utilising the isolated location of the treeless, storm-susceptible island along with its adjoining greyscale colour palette to create an array of hauntingly beautiful shots. Many of the visuals almost seem like depictions of a sailor’s nightmare, with the dense black-and-white grain of 35mm capturing every shadow and contour, lending the visuals a sensation of 19th-century expressionist horror, where even the tight aspect ratio proves to be claustrophobic. Furthermore, The Lighthouse employs several exceptional practical effects to depict the story’s more fantastical elements, such as its visual references to Greek mythology and seafarer folklore, like mermaids, sirens and the mighty Kraken.
Moving onto the original score, composer Mark Korven adds to the film’s foreboding atmosphere through doomy tracks like Arrival, Curse Your Name and Stranded. However, much of the unsettling atmosphere could also be attributed to the immersive sound design, central to which is a bellowing foghorn, which sound designer, Damian Volpe, turned to J.J. Jamieson to create; a craftsman in Shetland, Scotland, who makes YouTube tutorials on operating and maintaining foghorns. Using Jamieson’s samples, Volpe manipulated the sound to create a period-accurate foghorn that was suitably startling and memorable.
Another favourable aspect of The Lighthouse is its authenticity, not merely in relation to its time period, but in regard to its restraint to filming on-location, which allows the film to retain a consistent level of practicality throughout, similar to its sense of dread, both of which are only broken up by the handful of well-timed, darkly comedic moments.
In summary, disorientation is clearly the primary intent of The Lighthouse as Eggers offers hints towards a grander narrative, but never fully commits to a sweeping, readable story, even avoiding an easily discernible conclusion. As such, instead of serving as a straightforward psychological horror or a disturbing historic folk tale, The Lighthouse is more of a surreal exploration of masculinity, guilt and seclusion, in addition to standing as another impressive showcase of Robert Eggers’ screenwriting/filmmaking abilities. Rating: 9/10.