Film

Robert Eggers' 'The Lighthouse' Blazes with Brilliance

Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake and Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow in The Lighthouse (2019). (Photo by Eric Chakeen / IMDB)

Director Robert Eggers' emotional powerhouse, The Lighthouse, is a profound allegorical reminder that no man is an island.

The Lighthouse
Robert Eggers

A24

18 October 2019 (US) / 31 January 2020 (UK)

Other

The Lighthouse looks, sounds, and feels unlike any film in recent memory. Director Robert Eggers' follow-up to his haunting 2015 debut, The Witch, is a masterpiece of claustrophobic horror. Two frazzled lighthouse keepers battle each other and the doldrums as they slowly descend into a paranoia-fueled delirium. It's a grueling, unflinching character drama that so expertly mixes the supernatural with human frailty that you're never quite sure what is real and whatis imagined. A triumph of performance and production, The Lighthouse is a profound allegorical reminder that no man is an island.

Somewhere off the coast of 1890s New England, two keepers (or "wickies", as their called) disembark for their tour of duty at a remote lighthouse. The older veteran wickie is Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), a vulgar man who howls obscene soliloquies of Shakespearean proportion as he slowly drowns in a bottle of booze. The younger man is Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a square-jawed, tight-lipped mystery wrapped within a wiry frame. Thomas is the quintessential salty dog, spinning wild tales of wickies possessed by delusions of mermaids and phantom fog horns. Winslow, a former lumberjack, cares only about evading the troubled past that's forever nipping at his goulashes.

Ever the antagonist, Thomas refuses to relinquish the lighthouse beacon to Winslow. "The light is mine!" he bellows, relegating Winslow to the brutal physical detail of hauling coal, cleaning the cistern, and lugging kerosene to the top of the lighthouse. Winslow isn't a laborer by nature, and so his resentment quickly escalates. What is Thomas doing up there, hoarding the beautiful light all to himself?

One night, an enraged Winslow ascends the 70-foot tower and catches a glimpse of Thomas' naked writhing body -- and what might be a flapping tentacle. Eggers' ingenious storytelling makes it equally possible that Winslow is hallucinating -- or Thomas is actually a mystical sea creature.

The opening frames of The Lighthouse are so stark and murky that you question whether the film is shot in black and white or the island itself is really that grey. Partially filmed on the treacherous Cape Forchu off the coast of Nova Scotia, Eggers guarantees maximum authenticity by constructing a functional lighthouse. The lush black and white photography, cleverly shot in an aspect ratio (1.19:1) that resembles a square on the screen, looks like it was cut straight out of a historical New England textbook. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke used a variety of film stocks and filters in the hopes of creating sights "we haven't seen in 100 years."

He succeeded. The Lighthouse looks like something from another time. The closest comparison in modern cinema might come from Guy Maddin's 2015 fever dream, The Forbidden Room, which uses myriad photographic techniques to create the illusion of old films either lost or forgotten. Here, Eggers and his production team use everything at their disposal – set design, sound, and costumes – to infuse a suffocating realism into this already claustrophobic world. One can almost smell the impenetrable salt air and imagine the relief it provides from the overwhelming stench of sweat and urine.

Indeed, you can feel the boundaries of the screen tightening as Thomas and Winslow slowly come unhinged. Their fates are tethered to the luminous beacon, which they come to crave and dread in equal measure. For Thomas, the lighthouse beacon is a cloak; a blinding diversion from his past sins. For Winslow, the light offers the promise of salvation, and a quieting of the voices and visions rotting away his mind. As an unceasing storm pummels the island, one thing becomes clear: the lighthouse can have only one master.

(Photo by A24 Films - © 2019 A24 Films / IMDB)

This isn't the sort of film that relies upon jump scares or shocking bloodshed. Instead, The Lighthouse lends a physical manifestation to our inescapable, flawed nature. The evil lurking just beyond the constraints of civilization is truly horrific, and Eggers captures that horror with unrelenting candor. These men are literally adrift from humanity and bereft of identity, free to unleash all manner of psychological torture upon one another. Eggers imprisons them in an atmospheric nightmare of sights and sounds that audiences will find it difficult to shake.

In the foreground are mammoth performances from Dafoe and Pattinson. Playing off one another with the precision of a well-rehearsed stage play, each actor jockeys for the scrap of firm ground vanishing beneath their feet. Dafoe embodies a thoroughly convincing monster in Thomas, gleefully gaslighting an unstable younger partner who could easily crush him. With scores of gritty independent films now on his resume, Pattinson has been absolved of his earlier Twilight sins. Here, his Winslow is coiled so tightly with regret that you aren't sure whether to pity him or revile him when he finally "spills his beans" about the past.

On a doomed island where enlightenment cannot exist, the only prize becomes the light itself. The Lighthouse, much like Kubrick's opus on madness, The Shining, feels like an inexorable march towards fate. Even in the film's final haunting frames, when the master captures the object of his obsession, the swirling light only mocks his emptiness. For the man who refuses to know himself, there can be no shelter from the storm, not even in The Lighthouse

9

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.

Music

Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.

Film

Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Music

Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Music

The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.