Director Robert Eggers has a way of soaking his films with feelings of pure dread and evil. His prior work and feature debut, The Witch, is grim and harrowing throughout, rendering viewers unsettled and feeling filthy for having watched it. His sophomore effort, nautical nightmare The Lighthouse, is no different in terms of atmosphere, but it goes above and beyond.
This time, we’re focused on the relationship between two characters and attempts to maintain their sanity despite their extreme isolation. Willem Dafoe is Thomas Wake, a steely, superstitious old seabird who seems to have been mad from the get-go; Robert Pattinson is Ephraim Winslow, a former timberman with a dark past who only intends to keep his head down and do honest work for the next four weeks.
Winslow is on contract to work as a wickie under Wake’s supervision on a remote, desolate island for the month, with nothing to comfort him in his growing isolation aside from mysterious visions of a beautiful but haunting mermaid (Valeriia Karamän) and a playfully malicious one-eyed seagull (The Lighthouse’s Black Phillip, perhaps) who won’t leave him be (much to his disdain). Wake, equal parts irritable and irritating, is certainly no comfort, occupied with the only love of his lonely life: the lighthouse’s blinding light. In summation, we have what may be the darkest story about the horror of new roommates you’ll ever see.
Though commonly viewed under the lens of psychological horror, which is the closest to capturing the film’s energy, this is a film that refuses to abide by genre. It is instead an exploration of madness and mania born from isolation shrouded in an eerie mist, a tale of two men who slowly begin to blur together into one despite their striking differences. They drink and dance and sing, they fight and yell and cry, they fully lose themselves in their discomfort and welcome the audience to do the very same.
Eggers addressed his personal concern that The Witch took itself too seriously in this film, choosing to bring humour into the mix; yet, not once does it feel misplaced. “Ye don’t like my cookin’?” a despondent Wake asks Winslow, suddenly transformed from hardened wickie to stereotypically meek housewife, shattered for what seems to be the first time in his life. Winslow’s full-on screaming, punching-the-wall breakdown over how he cannot handle how awful Wake smells may have something to do with it. A homage to The Big Lebowski even somehow found a spot in this film.
Dafoe and Pattinson both give landmark performances. Dafoe fully embodies Wake’s mania even through the gruelling circumstances Wake finds himself in. Pattinson only shows restraint when Winslow must force himself to, clinging tight to moments Winslow finds himself alone in which he can finally overflow with emotion.
Even aesthetically, this film fully commits. The Lighthouse is shot on harsh black and white film stock and confined to an old-fashioned 1.19:1 aspect ratio (just about a perfect square; found far back in early silent cinema). The equipment used in the creation of this film is decades old but it’s no gimmick. The use of contrast and shadows makes for consistent visual interest; the aspect ratio complements the inherently claustrophobic nature of the film.
Despite dark waters brimming to the top of this film, it’s a labour of love, exemplary to the dedication of those within it: the lighthouse the two men inhabit was built special for this film, old camera equipment was unearthed and customized to render a specific aesthetic, cast and crew waded through murky waters and dreary weather conditions yet managed to capture perfect takes day in and day out.
As a result, The Lighthouse is nothing short of breathtaking. It is a distinct, unyielding vision upheld by talent and skill all across the board. From the first blaring foghorn that jolts viewers into discomfort minutes into the film — a motif that recurs throughout the film — Eggers’ hypnotic, eerie vision is realized. There is not a cinematic experience you will have this year that will match what The Lighthouse can give you: screaming mermaids, drunken sailors, hallucinatory tentacles and all.
The Lighthouse is presented by the Brock University Film Society (BUFS). It will have one last screening at The Film House in the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre on November 26 at 7:00 p.m.