Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) stands in the lantern room, feeding his addiction to the brilliant white light as Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) stares from below. Painted on Ephraim’s face are clear allusions to Kubrick’s stare, but his intentions are less transparent…
Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” advertised itself as more or less as a horror movie, albeit one with an unexpectedly high-profile cast list and unusual aspect ratio. Yet, “The Lighthouse” is not traditional horror. The film manages to defy that categorization despite the seemingly straightforward premise: Two men are stranded on an island in the late 19th century, tasked with operating the eponymous lighthouse, with tensions between them running high upon arrival as personalities clash and rations deplete. Their inevitable sink into delirium is the film’s way of representing the power dynamics between a captain and his slavish treatment of the cabin boy.
What is so remarkably strange about the film is its masterful control of tone. For a monochromatic tale of depravity, it is surprisingly funny—and not necessarily in an elevated way. Eggers is as comfortable with a fart joke as he is with Lovecraftian imagery, and there’s something about the vulgar banter from old-world sailors that makes it all cohere, as if the only way to cope with hallucinations of many-tentacled beasts is through an appreciation of the absurd. Still, the film’s versatility goes beyond its mixture of comedy and suspense, as there are countless themes woven throughout: that of repressed homoeroticism, Greek mythologies, German expressionism, surrealism, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism…
“The Lighthouse” is a remarkably rare instance in which the technical aspects are married so beautifully to the narrative elements that they enhance one another. The film’s form and its story become concurrently invisible and noticeable, stylized and organic. No other film on the market looks or moves the way this one does, with the camerawork lurking, prodding, soaring and shying away from the action, at times showing too much, at other times too little.
The slow-burn editing then melts away any sense of temporal reality within the plot, heightening the sense of the characters’ progressive dementia. The monaural sound design is both relatively period-accurate and experimental—for example, how the blare of the incessant siren mimics the call of a whale and the scream of a man. Even the aspect ratio contributes to the effect, with the nearly-square 1.19:1 producing a sense of visual claustrophobia that simulates the oppressive confines of the isle. At the same time, “The Lighthouse” replicates the aesthetic of films made in the 1890s. None of these characteristics ever become gimmicks or distractions, and only serve to further the immersion.
The final nugget of pure gold is the acting. Dafoe and Pattinson are simultaneously delivering possibly the best performances of either one of their careers (granted, this is a compliment of a much higher order for Dafoe than for Pattinson). Pattinson is an excellent actor, executing his job with a dexterity that is uncommon for actors even twice his age. That said, as Dafoe climbs through each and every one of his folkloric tirades, the derangement in his unblinking eyes swells to ecstatic proportions and lashes out into a delivery so impassioned, with a transformation so complete, that the only appropriate reaction to it is pure joy. There is a special kind of giddiness that comes about from seeing such an idiosyncratic vision so fully realized.
“The Lighthouse” (2019) is impeccable cinema.