Lighthouse, The (United States/Brazil, 2019)October 25, 2019
The Lighthouse starts out as a moody, introspective exploration of loneliness and interpersonal communication and develops into an existential horror movie. Although I don’t think the ending quite works, the film grows more unsettling as it approaches the finish line, employing the perspective of the unreliable narrator as it skirts the line between paranoia and sanity to the point where we (as viewers) are no longer certain what’s real and what isn’t.
Director Robert Eggers (The Witch), desiring verisimilitude, immersed himself in a study of late-19th century New England lighthouses before beginning work on the screenplay. By using black-and-white cinematography and a near-Academy 1.19:1 aspect ratio, his style hearkens back to the horror films of the 1930s, which were heavily influenced by German Expressionism. Admittedly, some of the content is too racy for what would have been acceptable during that era (Valeriia Karaman’s mermaid, who appears in visions and dreams, isn’t wearing clothing and we are offered a tour of her anatomy), but the style gives the movie a timelessness. The importance of sound is amplified, whether it’s the groaning of the lighthouse’s foghorn, the cawing of seagulls, or the farting of one of the characters.
The story is loosely based on the real-life 1801 Smalls Lighthouse tragedy, which was recounted more faithfully in Chris Crow’s 2016 film, also called The Lighthouse. Instead of presenting an historically-accurate chronology of what happened when two keepers were trapped inside a lighthouse for a long period of time due to stormy weather, Eggers uses the factual incident as a jumping-off point for a psychologically dire tale. Despite similar settings and a common desire to embrace the audience in a cocoon of claustrophobia, the movies are different entities and it would be unfair (and untrue) to call the 2019 production a “remake” of the earlier one.
The two keepers are played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. Dafoe is the elder, Thomas Wake, who jealousy guards the entrance to the top of the tower (only he is allowed to tend the light) and lords it over his junior, Ephraim Winslow. With a sea-faring man’s accent and verbiage and a costume that makes him look eerily like the Gorton’s Fisherman, Dafoe crafts an imperious and imposing character whose humanity emerges only when he has imbibed too much from his supply of spirits. Winslow, on the other hand, is tight-lipped and wild-eyed. He resents being treated like a subordinate and offers only hints about his past life, which included a stint with a logging company. As the initial indifference between the two blossoms into hatred, there’s a sense that violence is inevitable – until the two get drunk together and trade truths, laugh loudly, dance, and act like the best of friends. But when the day to depart arrives in concert with a violent storm that make it impossible for the relief boat to rescue them, Winslow’s tenuous grasp on reality slips.
Although this may be the most impassioned performance Robert Pattinson has given to-date, Dafoe’s acting is a notch above. In effect, he has to play two roles – Wake as he is and Wake as Winslow sees him. Those two don’t always match and there are times when we’re not sure which we’re seeing. The movie is presented through Winslow’s eyes and the more his sanity deserts him, the less sure it is that what we’re seeing is reflective of reality. For example, that scaly tentacle up near the light – that’s not real…or is it?
The Lighthouse works because of the strength of the actors’ performances, the power of their interaction, and the aura of incipient dread that saturates everything. It’s hard to imagine the film being this effective had it been made in color or with less emphasis on shadow. Much of the time, the images are intentionally dark. Although Eggers doesn’t use natural lighting, he makes it seem as if he is doing so. Dimly-lit scenes are not artificially brightened to enhance clarity.
There are aspects of the last ten-or-so minutes that I don’t think work as effectively as they might have. They seem too overt for a story that had thus far relied on restraint. Overall, however, the movie achieves its objective of placing the viewer in an uncomfortable situation and allowing it to play out around him or her. Although Eggers initially weds our sympathy to Winslow, he later challenges us with glimpses of things as they might be. (Case in point: are events in one instance involving a rowboat as we see them or as one of the characters describes them to have been?) The Lighthouse is a riveting but decidedly non-mainstream horror film. Even if the ending is imperfect, I’d love to see more movies like this.
Lighthouse, The (United States/Brazil, 2019)
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson
Home Release Date: 2020-01-07
Screenplay: Max Eggers, Robert Eggers
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke
Music: Mark Korven
U.S. Distributor: A24