by Stephen Campbell - Is this helpful?
_**A superbly made film about madness, isolation, alcohol, a pissed off one-eyed seagull, and farts**_
>_But, as we near'd the lonely Isle;_
>_And look'd up at the naked height;_
>_And saw the lighthouse towering white,_
>_With blinded lantern, that all night_
>_Had never shot a spark_
>_Of comfort through the dark,_
>_So ghastly in the cold sunlight_
>_It seem'd, that we were struck the while_
>_With wonder all too dread for words._
- Wilfrid Wilson Gibson; "Flannan Isle" (1912)
> _Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation and our_ _ultimate connectedness to each other._
- Virginia Woolf; _To the Lighthouse_ (1927)
> _The isolation spins its mysterious cocoon, focusing the mind on one place, one time, one rhythm – the turning of the light. The island knows no other human voices, no other footprints. On the Offshore Lights you can live any story you want to tell yourself, and no one will say you're wrong: not the seagulls, not the prisms, not the wind._
- M.L. Stedman; _The Light Between Oceans_ (2012)
A manic fever dream fusing Greek mythology, Jungian psychology, and German Expressionism with Herman Melville and H.P. Lovecraft, by way of George Kuchar, Mike Kuchar, and Guy Maddin, _The Lighthouse_ is about isolation, insanity, competitive masculinity, alcoholism, and farting. The second film from writer/director Robert Eggers, who exploded onto the scene with the masterful _The VVitch: A New England Folktale_ (2015), _The Lighthouse_ was co-written with his brother, Max Eggers, and is very loosely based on the "Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy" (1801), in which one of the two assigned keepers died, and it was over four months before relief could be sent. By the time someone did land, the still-living keeper had been driven completely insane. A bizarre film in just about every way, from its glorious visual and aural design to its grandiose acting to its jet black humour to its wonderful ambiguity to its avenging angels/seagulls, if you thought _The VVitch_ was somewhat inaccessible, then you'll most likely despise every second of _The Lighthouse_, insofar as its subtlety, slow pace, and narrative abstruseness will surely frustrate those who prefer their horror in the mould of jump-scares and chainsaw-wielding escaped mental patients. However, if you favour the cerebral, difficult-to-define, and always slightly off-camera terror that was the foundational principal of _The VVitch_ and films such as Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez's _The Blair Witch Project_ (1999), Jennifer Kent's _The Babadook_ (2014), and Emma Tammi's _The Wind_ (2018), or if you enjoy the oppressive dread of classic German Expressionist films such as Robert Wiene's _Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari_ (1920), Fritz Lang's _Der müde Tod: ein deutsches volkslied in 6 versen_ (1921), and F.W. Murnau's _Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens_ (1922), then you'll find much here to appreciate.
In the late 1890s, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) arrive on an outcropping off the coast of New England to begin their four-week rotation manning the lighthouse. Bombastic, spirited, and flatulent, Wake is a veteran – a former sailor who's been a wickie for the last fifteen years. Withdrawn and taciturn, Winslow is new to the job, having previously worked as a logger in Canada. Wake assigns Winslow the menial tasks – cleaning the floors, emptying the chamber pots, carrying kerosene containers, repairing the exteriors, oiling the gears in the basement – whilst he himself attends to the Fresnel lens, telling Winslow that he is never, ever to approach it, and not to concern himself with its maintenance. And so things go for a while. However, soon enough, Winslow begins to have strange experiences – a one-eyed seagull starts pestering him; he has visions of a mermaid washing up on the shore; he thinks he sees Wake standing in front of the light, completely naked; he has dreams of erotic tentacles; he has a vision of Wake as a barnacle-encrusted titan; he imagines wading out into the water amidst hundreds of logs, which close over top of him and drown him. Although he's unnerved, the four weeks pass without too much incident, but on the night before their relief is due, the wind suddenly changes, and the island is hit by a violent storm. The following morning, their ferry doesn't arrive, and with no way of contacting the mainland, the duo attempt to pass the time attending to their duties, whilst their drinking becomes ever more excessive, their loathing of one another ever more pronounced, and their hold on sanity ever more tenuous.
The first thing that jumps out at you in _The Lighthouse_ is the aesthetic. _The VVitch_ was a good-looking movie, no doubt, but _The Lighthouse_ is a rarefied masterclass in visual and aural design. Opening with the old monochrome Universal logo, the importance of Damian Volpe's incredible sound design is indicated immediately, as before we see anything, we hear the wind blowing and a foghorn rumbling in the distance. That horn is omnipresent throughout the film, and to say it gets under your skin is an understatement. You know the siren from the _Silent Hill_ games that sounds right before the town transitions from the Real World to the Otherworld? Well, imagine that sound bellowing out every minute or so for an entire film. It's unsettling, it's disturbing, and it makes it impossible to ever really acclimate yourself to this strange _milieu_. There's only one sequence in which we don't hear the foghorn, the pivotal opening scene of the third act, and the silence is oppressive – it's one of those instances where you don't realise how loud something was until it suddenly goes quiet and you're left with a ringing in your ears.
The sound design is matched by the stunning monochrome visuals. Working with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who also photographed _The VVitch_, Eggers shot _The Lighthouse_ on 35mm black & white Eastman Double-X 5222 celluloid in the relatively unheard format of 1.19:1. Usually, if a filmmaker shoots in a non-widescreen format, they use Academy ratio (1.37:1), as seen in films such as David Lowery's _A Ghost Story_ (2017), Paul Schrader's _First Reformed_ (2017), and Jennifer Kent's _The Nightingale_ (2018). On the other hand, the use of 1.19:1 (sometimes called Movietone) is extremely rare, especially in modern films, and for good reason – it was a transitional format that was only used briefly during the shift from silent cinema to sound (1926-1932). And that is exactly why Eggers and Blaschke chose it. Yes, they do match form to content insofar as the nearly square format traps the characters within the frame to an even greater degree than 1.37:1 would have, thus enhancing the already oppressive claustrophobia of the lighthouse itself. But where the genius in choosing this format really comes to light is when one considers to what the film aspires. This is a folktale, a fable from a by-gone age, so what better way to present that fable than by replicating the way the film would have looked had it been made during the early years of sound filmmaking? At the same time, although shot with modern cameras, Blaschke used period-specific Baltar lenses and an off-cyan filter custom-made by Schneider Filters to more accurately emulate the look of late 19th-century photography. Taken together, the black & white images, the square frame, the lens design, the patina, and the haunting sound design all work in glorious tandem to create the sense that the film is a disturbing artefact, an antique vestige from a different era, into whose very DNA dread has burrowed.
One also has to praise Craig Lathrop's production design. The lighthouse used in the film wasn't an existing structure, but was custom-built to scale on Cape Forchu, an outcropping off the coast of Nova Scotia. However, you'd never know it. Most of the interiors were shot on soundstages, but all exteriors were shot on Forchu. And Lathrop has imbued every inch of the building, both inside and out, with an existentialist dread – from the industrial hell of the gears in the basement to the almost Eden like peace of the lantern room high above, from the cramped and crude bedroom to the squalid kitchen. Malevolence stalks every nook and cranny.
Eggers also does something interesting with the narrative itself. I've seen some critics refer to Winslow and Wake as unreliable narrators, and whilst such critics are on the right track, to call the characters narrators is, in strict narratological terms, inaccurate. Both characters are, in fact, focalisers, to use the term coined by Gérard Genette – the world is filtered entirely through their perspective, but they don't narrate. Indeed, although we shift from one character to the other, meaning there is a narrative presence at the extradigetic level, Eggers never leaves their perspective, nor does he present any kind of omniscient or overt heterodiegetic narration; we're imprisoned within their perspective for the duration of the film. Also important here is the use of what Seymour Chatman refers to as "fallible focalisation" (he actually uses the term "fallible filtration", but filtration and focalisation are the same thing). The story is one of madness, and it's abundantly clear from early on that neither man is a reliable witness, so everything filtered through their perspective (i.e. the whole film) could be tainted or unreliable (which is why critics erroneously refer to the duo as unreliable narrators). As things begin to fall apart, this sense becomes ever more prevalent – for example, in an important scene near the end, we see Wake do something, and in the next scene, when Winslow confronts him about it, a confused Wake points out it was actually Winslow who did it. Is Wake lying? Is Winslow projecting his own actions onto his companion? Who exactly is misleading who here? And if there's madness in this tale, where does it land – Winslow, Wake, the audience, or all three of us? It's a wonderful use of a defamiliarising technique which works to keep the audience constantly on edge and constantly second-guessing everything they see insofar as we know that some, none, or all of it could be the figment of a failing mind.
The dialogue is also beautifully written. Whereas in _The VVitch_, Eggers used pre-colonial Early Modern English lifted from court transcripts of actual witch trials, here he doesn't take the dialogue from anywhere specifically, but there's an obvious debt to writers such as Sarah Orne Jewett, who often wrote about whalers working off the southern Maine coast. Winslow's accent is based on a Maine farming dialect, while Wake's is based on that of Atlantic fishermen, and although their idiolects are more recognisable to our modern ears than those used in _The VVitch_, inflections and sentence structure ensure we never forget this is a tale of the past – for example, Wake declares, "_I'm a wickie, and a wickie I is_" and during an argument about his cooking, he asks Winslow, "_Ye is fond of me lobster ain't ye?_" And needless to say, the acting is immense, with both men turning in career-best work. Whilst Pattinson slowly morphs from a docile and subservient worker into something more assertive, aggressive, and altogether more sinister, Dafoe goes as big as he can, in a performance that wouldn't be out of place in classic German Expressionism.
The film's storyline is slight enough as to suggest several themes without really going too heavily into any of them. For example, one could certainly read Winslow and Wake's relationship as homoerotic, maybe a study of the suppression of desire. Paranoia is also never far from the surface, nor is the societal construct of masculinity, particularly as manifested in competitiveness, with Eggers mocking male bravado and posturing. Another reading would be that the film is an allegory for class struggle _á la_ J.G. Ballard's _High Rise_ (1975) – the lighthouse represents society; the lantern room high above is the upper class, with Wake doggedly protecting the room, literally locking Winslow out; meanwhile, the bowels of the lighthouse is the working class, with Winslow spending much of the film performing menial tasks assigned him by Wake. Alcoholism is also omnipresent – from Wake telling Winslow that "_boredom makes men into villains_", and that alcohol is the only medicine for it, to the duo progressively drinking more and more each night, until they run out of rum, and so try to mix turpentine and honey, so dependent have they become on the numbing effects of drink.
_The Lighthouse_ definitely isn't for everyone. It's challenging and rewarding in equal measure, but it does ask much of the audience, with meaning to be found between the lines, rather than within them. Eggers does some of the legwork, but he still leaves the audience with a distance to go. Personally, I loved every crazy minute of it – whether it be the rising sense of dread, the unrelenting tension, the oppressive suspense, the fierce battle of wills, the consuming paranoia, the descent into insanity etc. There's a lot that has gone into making this film what it is, both in terms of crafting the folkloric story and in the more mechanical sense of putting the finished film together – it's an aesthetic marvel in pretty much every way. Thick with mood and atmosphere, _The Lighthouse_ proves that _The VVitch_ was no fluke.