Review: “The Lighthouse”: both a Surrealist painting and Greek tragedy

Review: “The Lighthouse”: both a Surrealist painting and Greek tragedy

Photo Credits: KATHERINE FRANKS / AGGIE

The Beauty of Eggers’ fully realized vision  

“The Lighthouse,” the most recent film from Robert Eggers, is an exploration of hysteria on the high seas, a piece of cinema that transcends Eggers from a director into a modern-day auteur. It is also the sole reason why future generations will avoid seagulls with deeply rooted apprehension. 

Eggers has had a life-long fascination with the paranormal, occult and outlandish — specifically those of days long past. His last film, “The VVitch,” was a 17th-century folk tale centered around an exiled New England family with the looming threat of a villain in the woods. Although “The VVitch” is an acclaimed debut and a solid film, “The Lighthouse” takes the seeds planted there and sows them into a beautiful, bountiful harvest. From top to bottom, Eggers’ most recent film is a vision, worked on by many, but whittled, crafted and perfected by the director himself. “The Lighthouse” tells the story of two men, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), working the titular tower for what was intended to be just a season but ended up lasting an eternity.

Viewers are immediately struck by how the film actually appears on screen. Although shot on modern-day cameras, Eggers sought out archaic lenses from the 1930s and 1940s to imitate the look of old horror films. The result is an aspect ratio that is almost completely absent from mainstream film today: a boxy, narrow view that is known as Academy (1.19:1). These technical aspects set the stage for the directorial elements that make their way on screen. Eggers also chose to work in black and white, transporting us from the modern day into the old, desolate and claustrophobic landscape of the New England coast in the 1890s. 

And what a landscape it is. “The Lighthouse” uses the decision to forego a color palette to actively grab the viewer’s attention and to illuminate the life of a wikie, the period-appropriate slang for lighthouse keeper. This choice lends itself to creating visual intrigue for the audience. Textures pop incredibly on screen: the fuzz on Winslow’s sweater, every groove in a plank of wood, even the individual crests of a wave in the sea below become more visually enticing when seen in a monochromatic sense. The lack of color coaxes the audience even further into Eggers’ rabbit hole. It almost makes you think that everything before the 20th century was actually in black and white and no one is brave enough to talk about it, for fear of sounding like an idiot. 

Once your eyes adjust to the lack of hue and widescreen format (which happens deceptively quickly) you are immediately drawn into the plot of the film. Imbued with thick accents, Winslow and Wake work day in and day out, tending to the lighthouse and the duties entrusted to them. Winslow works under Wake, both figuratively and literally, shoveling coal and oiling the gears while his superior stands at the very top of the lighthouse, often appearing as if he isn’t doing anything up there. It is both Winslow’s desperate need for control and his curiosity of what’s at the lighthouse’s top that set in motion the events of the film, coupled with a mysterious absence of a relief ship at the end of the season. It’s in this moment, at the end of the first act, when the true horror of the film begins to set in. 

“The Lighthouse” has perhaps some of the most effective and refreshing horror that the genre has witnessed in recent memory and is one of the most powerful arguments for Eggers as an auteur. The film goes nowhere near the jump-scares of many blockbusters, nor is it in the same league as other arthouse horror films, which are often subtle in their terror. Here, fear comes from the unexplained, the unsettling and the simply strange, all of which become blatant as the film goes on. It’s why viewers feel a deep disconcerting terror when a seagull appears in front of Winslow and senses an even greater omen when he chooses to kill it in a fit of rage. Winslow, who is essentially our lense into this world, is the root of all this luridness. 

It becomes increasingly clearer as the film plays out that Winslow is not mentally stable, and that perhaps what we are seeing is not actually what is unfolding but, instead, the figments of a man going mad after months on a rock with just one other person. The imagery becomes steadily more grotesque and troubling, culminating in a final act that looks as if it was ripped out of a Surrealist painting and written out to be a Greek tragedy. The eerie nature of the film will make you deeply uncomfortable around the friendliest seagulls and inspire terror when you’re near the calmest bodies of water. It begs noticing that Thomas Wake’s surname means “a trail of disturbed water.”

The sonic elements Eggers utilized protrude as the crown jewel of “The Lighthouse.” The loud, blaring horn of the lighthouse becomes almost a character in itself, symbolizing the perpetual dread about to befall the two wikies. Mark Korven’s score is filled to the brim with thundering horns and unsettling strings, instruments that deftly communicate the madness that hangs over Winslow and Wake. The beauty is in its simplicity, never overbearing, embodying what a score should be: an audible manifestation of the mood. 

The influences found in “The Lighthouse” are vast and varied, yet weaved together seamlessly. The atmosphere of the film owes itself to Eggers’ passion for the strange and paranormal of the 19th century. With dialogue lifted directly from journals and books Eggers procured while writing, the film owes as much to old sea shanties as it does to early 20th century horror flicks. Thematically, Eggers captures the tales of sailors telling legends in the dead of night that emphasize superstition and a deep reverence for the sea. Cinematically, however, Eggers lands his work much closer to the modern day, channeling directors like Ingmar Bergman with deep close-up shots and startling monologues. The monologues are almost as beautiful as they are unnerving. The same could be said of the close-up shots, which are plentiful, and question the sanity of our characters, focusing on the intense fear in their expressions. 

If you scare easily, this is usually the part where many would tell you to avoid “The Lighthouse.” But I won’t. You should see it, again and again, if only to support the fully realized vision of a man doing something different and deeply fascinating. You should see it to experience the primordial joy of cinema, which is to simply get lost in a world. That, and to hear Willem Dafoe say “lobster” in his 19th century accent.

Written By: Ilya Shrayber — arts@theaggie.org

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