As I write this, my shoulders are tense and I’m finding it hard to relax. I’ve just returned home from a late night viewing of Robert Eggers’ latest journey into madness and melancholic mayhem, The Lighthouse, and it was, to say the least, a stressful affair. From its opening scene, throughout which a foghorn incessantly blares from somewhere off screen as Robert Pattinson’s character silently trudges towards his four weeks working as an assistant to the keeper (played excellently by a returning Willem Dafoe) of a remote lighthouse, to its gruesome finale, Eggers’ latest film does little to depart from the psychological torment he became so well known for with 2015’s The VVitch: A New England Folktale. Yet despite its being in keeping with what we might expect from the two-time feature director, it does away with much of what we expect from cinema as a whole, and does so to its merit.
First and perhaps foremost in the film’s toolbox of its mesmeric yet galling style is its use of 35mm black and white film and a 1.19:1 aspect ratio. As well as creating a period accurate aesthetic for the film’s late Victorian setting, the high contrast, colourless cinematography and compact framing lend both a desolation and claustrophobia to an already white-knuckle plot. Couple this with frequent closeups of the weather beaten, dishevelled men at the heart of the story, as well as Eggers’ penchant for drawn out, mysterious and uncomfortably angled shots of the harsh landscape playing home to Pattinson and Dafoe’s characters, and audiences are helplessly drawn into the tightly confined, insanity inducing world of the small rock upon which this mysterious lighthouse is situated.
Stellar too in their portrayals of their respective characters, Dafoe and Pattinson further add to the film’s frustrating excellence. Dafoe, playing salty former sailer turned veteran lighthouse keeper Thomas Wick, is at once characterised as both the voice of reason and architect of the insanity central to the film’s plot, from the outset frequently bursting into violence and long, terrifying sea- dog monologues while all along telling Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow that it’s him losing his mind. Winslow, a taciturn and mysterious fugitive, on the other hand starts the film with only a hint of the maniacal (early on hinting at violence when seethingly throwing a stone at a seagull), before catapulting head first into a vicious craze propelled by moonshine fuelled hallucinations and a yearning to get off the “God damned rock” upon which he’s trapped by a deadly storm. Masterfully embodying his arc from lightly simmering rage to full blown delirium and unfaltering, though perhaps at times over the top, Massachusetts accent, Pattinson reminds us throughout the film why we should forget his Twilight roots and accept him as the serious thespian his recent work shows us he is.
Other reviews have lamented The Lighthouse for an apparent excessive madness within which its plot apparently gets lost. Though perhaps true in regards to any sense of closure (not many of the questions invoked throughout the plot are really resolved by its end), its in this descent into utter chaos where we can find the most enjoyment. Not one for a linear plot in which everything tends to makes sense, Eggers once again employs a storyline where we’re left feeling confused, though not unsatisfied. And showing his chops for impressive cinematography, Eggers ensures that as each character’s sanity and identity is increasingly called into question, their surroundings become similarly messy, with a harsh storm destroying buildings and their ever intensifying fights wrecking the lodgings in which they’re confined.
Yes, any sense of what’s really happening is lost among the chaos of flooded floorboards and broken furniture, but it’s exactly this sense of not knowing that makes The Lighthouse such an entertaining film and in fact drives the story; Winslow’s not knowing how long he’s been working at the lighthouse is a central plot device. This, of course, isn’t to say the movie is all style and no substance, quite the opposite in fact; the gruelling, antagonising and yes, at times utterly mystifying story still holds weight in the face of all of the production’s aesthetic quality. In fact, without one there would not be the other. Through the film’s darkly enchanting cinematography, we’re leant respite from a plot line that makes for arduous viewing in its disorder. In a similar vein, via a maniacal plot in which up is down and black is white, the film’s maddening substance is achieved, not lost.
Words, Edward John
Images, Courtesy of A24