As the wavering cry of the foghorn fills the air, the taciturn former lumberjack, Ephraim Winslow, and the grizzled lighthouse keeper, Thomas Wake, set foot in a secluded and perpetually grey islet off the coast of late-19th-century New England. For the following four weeks of back-breaking work and unfavourable conditions, the tight-lipped men will have no one else for company except for each other, forced to endure irritating idiosyncrasies, bottled-up resentment, and burgeoning hatred. Then, amid bad omens, a furious and unending squall maroons the pale beacon's keepers in the already inhospitable volcanic rock, paving the way for a prolonged period of feral hunger; excruciating agony; manic isolation, and horrible booze-addled visions. Now, the eerie stranglehold of insanity tightens. Is there an escape from the wall-less prison of the mind?Written by
10 days before filming was due to start, production company New Regency tried to convince director Robert Eggers to shoot on wide screen because the film sets were "too beautiful" to not be shown on full scale. See more »
A superbly made film about madness, isolation, alcohol, a cheesed-off one-eyed seagull, and farts
A manic fever dream fusing Greek mythology, Jungian psychology, and German Expressionism with Herman Melville and H.P. Lovecraft, The Lighthouse is about isolation, insanity, competitive masculinity, alcoholism, and farting. The second film from writer/director Robert Eggers, who exploded onto the scene with the masterful The VVitch: A New-England Folktale (2015), The Lighthouse was co-written with his brother, Max Eggers, and is very loosely based on the "Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy" (1801). A bizarre film in just about every way, from its glorious visual and aural design to its grandiose acting to its jet black humour to its wonderful ambiguity to its avenging angels/seagulls, if you thought The VVitch was somewhat inaccessible, then you'll most likely despise every second of The Lighthouse. However, if you favour the cerebral, difficult-to-define, and always slightly off-camera terror that was the foundational principle of The VVitch and films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Babadook (2014), and The Wind (2018), or the oppressive dread of classic German Expressionist films such as Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920), Der müde Tod (1921), and Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922), then you'll find much here to appreciate.
In the late 1890s, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) arrive on an outcropping off the coast of New England to begin their four-week rotation manning the lighthouse. The more experienced Wake assigns Winslow menial tasks such as cleaning the floors, emptying the chamber pots, oiling the gears in the basement etc., whilst he himself attends to the Fresnel lens, telling Winslow that he is never, ever to approach it. Although Winslow has some unnerving dreams, and is being pestered by a one-eyed seagull, the four weeks pass without too much incident. However, on the night before their relief is due, the wind suddenly changes, and the island is hit by a violent storm. The following morning, their ferry doesn't arrive, and with no way of contacting the mainland, the duo find themselves trapped.
The first thing that jumps out at you in The Lighthouse is the aesthetic. The importance of Damian Volpe's incredible sound design is indicated immediately, as before we see anything, we hear the wind blowing and a foghorn rumbling in the distance. That horn is omnipresent throughout the film, and to say it gets under your skin is an understatement. You know the siren from the Silent Hill games that sounds right before the town transitions from the Real World to the Otherworld? Well, imagine that sound bellowing out every minute or so for an entire film. It's unsettling, it's disturbing, and it makes it impossible to ever really acclimate yourself to this strange milieu. There's only one sequence in which we don't hear the foghorn, the pivotal opening scene of the third act, and the silence is oppressive - it's one of those instances where you don't realise how loud something was until it suddenly goes quiet and you're left with a ringing in your ears.
The sound design is matched by the stunning monochrome visuals. Working with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who also photographed The VVitch, Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm black & white celluloid in the relatively unheard format of 1.19:1. This ratio was a transitional format that was only used briefly during the shift from silent cinema to sound (1926-1932). And that's exactly why Eggers and Blaschke chose it. Yes, they do match form to content insofar as the nearly square format traps the characters within the frame. Beyond that, however, this is a folktale, a fable from a by-gone age, so what better way to present that fable than by replicating the way the film would have looked had it been made during the early years of sound filmmaking? At the same time, although shot with modern cameras, Blaschke used period-specific Baltar lenses and an off-cyan filter to more accurately emulate the look of late 19th-century photography. Taken together, the black & white images, the square frame, the lens design, the patina, and the haunting sound design all work in glorious tandem to create the sense that the film is a disturbing artefact, an antique vestige from a different era, into whose very DNA dread has burrowed.
One also has to praise Craig Lathrop's production design. The lighthouse used in the film wasn't an existing structure, but was custom-built to scale on Cape Forchu, an outcropping off the coast of Nova Scotia. However, you'd never know it. Most of the interiors were shot on soundstages, but all exteriors were shot on Forchu. And Lathrop has imbued every inch of the building, both inside and out, with an existentialist dread - from the industrial hell of the gears in the basement to the almost Eden like peace of the lantern room high above, from the cramped and crude bedroom to the squalid kitchen. Malevolence stalks every nook and cranny.
Eggers also does something interesting with the narrative itself. I've seen some critics refer to Winslow and Wake as "unreliable narrators", and whilst such critics are on the right track, to call the characters narrators is, in strict narratological terms, inaccurate. Both characters are, in fact, focalisers - the world is filtered through their perspective, but they don't narrate. Indeed, although we shift from one character to the other, meaning there is a narrative presence at the extradigetic level, Eggers never leaves their perspective, nor does he present any kind of omniscient or overt heterodiegetic narration; we're imprisoned within their perspective for the duration of the film. Also important here is the use of "fallible focalisation". The story is one of madness, and it's abundantly clear that neither man is a reliable witness, so everything filtered through their perspective (i.e. the whole film) could be tainted or unreliable (which is why critics erroneously refer to them as unreliable narrators). As things begin to fall apart, this sense becomes ever more prevalent - for example, in an important scene near the end, we see Wake do something, and in the next scene, when Winslow confronts him about it, a confused Wake points out it was actually Winslow who did it. Is Wake lying? Is Winslow projecting his own actions onto his companion? Who exactly is misleading who here? It's a wonderful use of a defamiliarising technique which works to keep the audience constantly on edge and constantly second-guessing everything they see insofar as we know that some, none, or all of it could be the figment of a failing mind.
The film's storyline is slight enough as to suggest several themes without really going too heavily into any of them. For example, one could certainly read Winslow and Wake's relationship as homoerotic, maybe a study of the suppression of desire, whilst the societal construct of masculinity, particularly as manifested in competitiveness, is never far from the surface. Another reading would be that the film is an allegory for class struggle á la J.G. Ballard's High Rise (1975) - the lantern room high above is the upper class, with Wake doggedly protecting the room; meanwhile, the bowels of the lighthouse is the working class, with Winslow performing menial tasks assigned him by Wake. Alcoholism is also omnipresent, with the duo progressively drinking more and more each night, until they run out of rum, and so try to mix turpentine and honey, so dependent have they become on the numbing effects of drink.
The Lighthouse definitely isn't for everyone, and is challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Personally, I loved every crazy minute of it. There's a lot that has gone into making this film what it is, both in terms of crafting the folkloric story and in the more mechanical sense of putting the finished film together - it's an aesthetic marvel in pretty much every way. Thick with mood and atmosphere, The Lighthouse proves that The VVitch was no fluke.
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