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Non-Review Review: The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse is a striking, evocative, psychedelic horror. It is also about twenty minutes too long.

Director Robert Eggers made a striking impression with The Witch. Indeed, there’s a clear set of throughlines connecting The Lighthouse to The Witch. Both are fundamentally period pieces about characters who find themselves in extremely isolated conditions, with the unsettling implication that something vague and ominous is lurking in the darkness just beyond the candle light. Both are also highly formal pieces, with Eggers embracing a consciously heightened aesthetic to create a sense of unreality within his film.

Downward spiral.

However, The Lighthouse stands apart from The Witch in the particulars of its exploration of isolation. After all, The Witch was a story about a young woman who moved into the rural countryside with her entire nuclear family. In contrast, the experience in The Lighthouse is much more intense. It is the story of a young man who finds himself offered a (relatively) high-paying position on a remote rock to work as an assistant to a veteran lighthouse keeper. The two men are strangers when they start to work together, and may remain strangers throughout.

The Lighthouse becomes a study of the descent into madness, the collapse of civility, and the horrors of living with a terrible room mate.

Solid as a rock.

At its core, The Lighthouse is a promethean allegory. It is a story about how man has pulled himself out of the sea and reaches towards the light. Robert Pattinson plays the new arrival at the shanty, a gopher who finds himself relegated to menial tasks like scrubbing and washing and building while his more senior partner is tasked with managing the light that guides ships through the cold and windy nights.

Over the course of the film, young Ephraim Winslow finds himself drawn towards the beacon. Thomas Wake is possessive of the lighthouse. He refuses to let Ephraim into the keep at the top of the tower, carefully locking and unlocking it as he comes and goes. “Get yer own light,” he chides Ephraim over the course of the film, insisting that the responsibility belongs entirely to himself. However, Ephraim comes to suspect that there is something happening, something wrong.

Holding on to sanity.

As with The Witch, Eggers has a skillful sense of the uncanny. Over the course of the film’s first hour, Eggers invites the audience to feel Ephraim’s unease through quick glimpses and long-distance photography. Repeatedly, The Lighthouse teases its audience with a strange image in the distance, one which recedes as the camera focuses upon it. Did Ephraim actually see something? If so, what exactly was it? Eggers understands that horror only becomes more unsettling when it can’t be neatly clarified or quantified. Maybe there is something wrong, maybe it is a trick of the light.

As Ephraim spends more time on the rock, his sense of reality begins to collapse. Time begins to compress. He starts noticing the details of his esteemed colleague’s stories are changing. When he offers a correction, Wake responds, “Ye must have misheard me.” If Wake gaslighting his young apprentice, or is Ephraim slowly losing his grip on reality? Is it both? Is it something more insidious and more sinister in this remote lighthouse. The Lighthouse seems to unfold in a perpetual twilight zone, a space between the real world and something more abstract.

Lightening the mood.

Eggers does occasionally overplay his hand. The film’s central allegory is clever, and works remarkably well as a vehicle for an exploration of man’s tenuous grip on humanity. The eponymous lighthouse is a potent metaphor for any light in any darkness, and so it makes sense as the basis for a retelling of this particular classic myth. However, the climax leans too heavily into this. The film’s closing monologue awkwardly articulates not only the theme, but the metaphor. The film’s closing image then hammers the point home in case the audience missed the monologue.

Still, The Lighthouse is a striking piece of work. Eggers shoots the film in the Movietone ratio. This creates a palpable claustrophobia, a sense that the characters are literally trapped within the frame with one another; whenever Ephraim and Wake are in the frame together, they have no space to escape one another. It also deliberately evokes silent cinema. Eggers repeatedly offers stark reaction shots of Pattinson’s face, recalling the way in which silent era films had to rely on expressions to communicate emotions rather than dialogue.

That sinking feeling.

More than that, the use of black-and-white allows Eggers to lean into an almost expressionist aesthetic. The film is packed with psychedelic imagery, often feeling like a demented trip. Even disinfectant swirling inside a rotting cistern tank looks fantastical when shot in such sharp contrast, whirlpools of white flowing on the surface of an all-consuming black. The harsh weather conditions appear as a grey oblivion, threatening to swallow and consume the island and the characters living upon it.

The Lighthouse is technical impressive. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography is stunning, looking at once like a lost classic of the silent era and something very modern. Mark Korven’s soundtrack is the grim heartbeat of the film, the pulsing sound of rising dread. Damian Volpe’s sound design deserves special praise, blending Korven’s score with the ominous mechanical hum of the engines driving the eponymous beacon. It is a testament to Volpe’s work that even the sound design is hallucinatory, with the audience unsure of exactly what (and how much) Ephraim can hear in a given moment.

A beacon of light in a dark world.

On a more mundane level, and tying back into those promethean themes in its own way, The Lighthouse captures the more mundane horrors of the human condition – the grim reminder that people are often nothing more than a collection of urges and appetites and waste. Bodily functions are a recurring motif within the film. Wake is properly introduced to Ephraim (and the audience) while urinating, while Ephraim’s own baser impulses also come into focus. Wake seems to split his time between talking, eating and farting. Emptying chamber pots is just part of Ephraim’s day.

This creates a more mundane and relatable horror within The Lighthouse, quite apart from its meditations upon the way that humanity’s base impulses keep Ephraim closer to the sea than to the light. It is a horror story about what it is like to live with a terrible roommate, to share an intimate space with somebody who appears openly antagonistic to one’s very existence. It is a cliché to suggest that hell is other people, but The Lighthouse suggests that for Ephraim and Wake, hell might just be each other.

Shore thing.

Pattinson and Dafoe do good work in the two lead roles, effectively carrying the film single-handedly. As Ephraim, Pattinson is the audience identification figure, and Pattinson is willing to commit to the more unflattering and more unsettling demands of the performance. As with a lot of Pattinson’s recent work, it is a role without ego or vanity. However, Dafoe provides the more interesting of the two lead performances, playing an old sailor who is constantly trapped between his own self and the version that his colleague has projected on to him. It’s a more abstract, more challenging brief.

That said, The Lighthouse does over-extend itself. There are a lot of really great ideas here, and some striking images, but the film is very clearly pushing in a particular direction from the outset. There are too many scenes of Ephraim and Wake drinking together, dancing together, bantering together. These scenes are charming individually, and a couple of them together help to convey the sense of absurdist horror of two men trapped in a confined space together, but there is a point at which they are ultimately repeating themselves. The Lighthouse is indulgent.

Of course, The Lighthouse is also just about smart enough to get away with that indulgence. It is visually interesting enough and thematically engaging enough that its pacing and its heavy-handedness can be forgiven as missteps rather than fatal flaws. Nevertheless, these problems are a source of frustration. There is enough great material here that The Lighthouse should be a masterpiece of modern horror. Instead, it’s merely a striking addition to the genre.

2 Responses

  1. Great review! From my point of view, give me more of these striking additions and less movies like La Llorona or other useless stuff like that!

    I added a link to your review below mine on my blog, I hope you don’t mind! :–)

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