Ever since it was announced, The Lighthouse has intrigued me. Not because the trailers were well made (they were) or because I enjoy watching Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe act (I do). No, I was most interested to see if director Robert Eggers could successfully follow his powerful debut, The Witch (2015). Well slap me down and cast me into Davey Jones’ locker – The Lighthouse delivers on all fronts and absolutely floored me.
Set on a desolate New England island in the 1890s, The Lighthouse revolves around two men tasked with caring for the titular structure. But more than that, it’s about suspicion, madness and horror – I will say no more about the plot as it truly must be experienced alongside its characters. From the outset, the film hammers the viewer with an unrelenting soundtrack. Horns, waves and rumbling machinery provide the film with a sinister pulse that eats away at the viewer the same way it does for our protagonist, Ephraim Winslow, played by Robert Pattinson. The droning machines and pounding waves never settle into the background – they won’t be ignored. This may irritate some viewers but I found it to be a cunning and effective device to put us into Winslow’s headspace as he begins his descent into madness.
Beyond the striking sound design, the visuals of the film create an atmosphere all their own. Eggers re-teams with his cinematographer from The Witch, Jarin Blaschke, to create a unique aesthetic for The Lighthouse. This film does not resemble anything you will see in theaters today. I use the word “today” purposefully; Blaschke’s black-and-white cinematography would be right at home in the silent cinema classics directed by F. W. Murnau, G. W. Pabst or Fritz Lang. Using an almost square aspect ratio (as opposed to the long rectangular widescreen of most modern films), Eggers and Blaschke shrink the world around Winslow, essentially boxing him into the squat lighthouse shack. To increase the claustrophobia, Eggers frequently drenches the screen in inky shadows so all that remains are small slivers of candle-lit faces. The shadows threaten to swallow our characters just as the island chips away at their sanity.
Which brings us to our two characters. Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake is a vulgar stump of a man. He spouts seemingly endless streams of orders, tall tales and salty threats with a face that looks as craggy as the sea cliffs beneath his lighthouse. Simply put, Dafoe is nothing short of astounding. He commands attention in every indelible second that he is on the screen. And opposite him is an equally astonishing Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow. Like waves crashing against the cliffs, Pattinson and Dafoe frequently square off in the film and reward the audience with fireworks. Meanwhile the island and its various miseries rack Winslow and etch crags of rage and terror into Pattinson’s face. Look for both of these actors to be recognized when awards season rolls around.
Those who are looking for a traditional, bloody horror film will not find it here. But those who seek an ingeniously crafted work of art about a plunge into insanity will find treasures aplenty in The Lighthouse.