Undoubtedly one of the most visually and audibly striking films of the year, Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse is a strange tale of madness among men in isolation. Pattinson gives a performance to rival the best of this year and Eggers ability to pull tropes of different genres and styles into a hallucinatory trip into the darkest areas of a man’s psyche solidifies himself as one of the most interesting filmmakers of the decade.
Following the critically well received The Witch (2015), Robert Eggers returns to directing feature film with The Lighthouse. A hallucinatory tale of two lighthouse keepers tending to a mysterious island in the late 19th century. Building on the unsettling visual style Eggers has become known for in the short film circuit and had expanded with The Witch, The Lighthouse is one of the year’s most interesting films, both thematically and visually. Much creative freedom is given to Pattinson and Defoe, who play the two leads, and both give two of the best performances of their career. Consistently throughout, you will be questioning what is real and what is not on this strange island that seems so far away from civilisation and is hidden away within a constant and unsettling fog. Eggers’ slow and meandering style creates an unnerving and foreboding atmosphere pressing you back into your seat and trapping you on the island with the two leads.
It is difficult to evaluate the plot for it’s literal properties, as much of the story is told through symbolic visual aspects but nonetheless there is a coherent chain of events that can be dissected.
Arriving on the island during a cold windy day, young Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) has taken on a government contract as a second lighthouse keeper to accompany and help the older and crippled Thomas Wake (Defoe). Wake insists upon Winslow taking on the more physically demanding tasks during the day whilst Wake watches the light during the night. Throughout, Winslow is slowing counting down the days of the four weeks he is contracted for, as he slowly starts to encounter strange happenings with regards to Wake’s behavior and the idiosyncrasies of the island itself. Without giving too much away, the island seems to slowly consume Winslow and his ideas of self identity, until he finally gives into hedonistic desires, and begins to lose control of himself.
The plot is engaging but is rather vague in its execution. The story can be summed up as two men work on an island and learn to develop an antagonistic and mistrustful if workable friendship. They reflect each other in many more ways than one and the more eagle eyed viewer will pick up on certain dialogue choices that suggests it is more than just a simple coherence in their behaviour. Both have much to hide from the other and neither is quite willing to bridge the gap in a sensible and agreeable way, creating odd and uncomfortable tension between the two that bursts out during moments of emotional intensity.
Regardless of the vague nature of the story, the real treat comes from the performances of Robert Pattinson and Willem Defoe. Pattinson especially, who I’ve always thought of has an excellent actor who unfortunately had to be in some really terrible movies to get his name on the papers of studio execs. Twilight is long past now and in my opinion it was worth it to be able to see him in special projects such as this. Pattinson’s slow unravelling of Winslow’s psyche is a fantastic watch as he descends from rule abiding to raving paranoia, so subtly that when the s**t hits the fan you’re almost as surprised as he is to find out he really has fallen very far. Defoe on the other hand begins the film as a stereotypical lifetime sailor who was never sane in the first place, married to his precious lighthouse. The performance is a bit pantomime and begins as a humorous release from the overbearing tension the island emits but slowly becomes just as unsettling as the strange occurrences around the island itself, with the film knowingly referencing how ridiculous he is to wonderful effect.
Visually however is where the film really gets interesting. The film was not only shot in black and white but also in an aspect ration of 1.19:1 which closes the frame so tightly around the characters effectively forcing them to be in each other’s presence in an uncomfortably intimate way, accentuating the isolation and claustrophobia that comes with small island life. Certain moments are given greater artistic merit because of the colour scheme as well. Silhouettes ooze an uncomfortable mystery that tease the audience’s curiosity but warn of disturbing truths hiding in the dark. The ever present bright light from the lighthouse shines upon everything but never holds on one element, always patrolling but never investigating. There is much to be interpreted from the many visual symbols that appear numerous times throughout the movie that I shan’t discuss here for fear of spoiling what is certainly something one should walk into knowing as little as possible. Needless to say however Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography is wonderfully applied and is easily the best element of an overall great film.
It is also worth mentioning Mark Korven’s soundtrack and the overall sound design of the film. Much more subtle than the visual aspects of the film, Korven’s music wraps what would other wise be a nonsense black and white tale of two mad men in a coherent and uncomfortable atmosphere. The consistent booming of the lighthouse, the tense and ever-present sound of the waves crashing against the rocks and the overbearing and intrusive musical swells as Winslow indulges his dark fantasies all come together to create a whirlwind of confusing but systematic sequence of events that lead to the film’s explosive ending.
The Lighthouse isn’t a particularly unique film when you look at the insanely broad range of film today. German expressionist elements populate an American indie canvas detailed by typical Lovecraftian psychological horror beats. However the execution is so well crafted that it is difficult to find fault in the film. Pattinson and Defoe clearly threw themselves into their respective roles and both deserve much commendation for their performances. Blaschke’s cinematography and Korven’s soundtrack bring the story together in a wild but coherent manner, keeping you guessing all the way to the end.
Written by Alfie Smith
All images courtesy of A24 Films LLC