Nearly three years after his incredible debut with The Witch, writer/director Robert Eggers returns with another cinematic delight in The Lighthouse: a film that continues his focus on immersive, well-researched period pieces and advances his prowess in visual and auditory design. Friday night audiences who love mainstream jump scares will likely leave the theater even more disappointed than they were by The Witch; but fans of brooding, absurd, psychological character studies are going to relish every second of this carefully constructed descent into drunken madness.
From the opening shots of The Lighthouse, it’s clear that Eggers is trying to create a film from a different era. Early moving images of ocean water crashing against the bow of a ship or the sides of gothic-looking rock formations conjure up instant feelings in the viewer of the early horror films of the 1920s and 30s. Boxed in 4:3 close-up shots of Willem Dafoe’s and Robert Pattinson’s expressive faces and washed out, foggy exterior action sequences further separate this film from modern “high dynamic range” movie fare.
It’s been publicized that Eggers achieved these looks through the use of some period-appropriate cameras and filmmaking devices, but the dated technology alone couldn’t capture such an authentic experience. Dafoe and Pattinson are fully committed to their roles as Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow, and their physical and verbal delivery makes every scene of the film a thrilling experience. Their costumes are brilliantly drab and disgusting. Pattinson’s moustache and Dafoe’s beard and wooden teeth are captured in brilliant black and white, looking like old photographs as they drink and argue and dance and fight. The difference in each character’s distinct dialect is such an auditory pleasure to behold! Dafoe’s long-winded yarns of sea curses and superstition is obviously lifted from the tales of Melvile and the like, and he delivers it with such deadpan conviction that it would be a wonder if his performances weren’t accompanied by grimaces and chuckles on set between takes. Pattinson’s Winslow is new to the wickie business, and his accent is more akin to Daniel Day Lewis’ Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Regardless, he too becomes blinded by the ecstasy of the light, a shared desire which ultimately pits the two against each other in a downward spiral of booze, unfulfilled desires, and a disconnect from objective truth and reality.
The Lighthouse is certainly very scary in key moments. Its mermaid could send chills down the spine of even the most hardened seaman, and the ending is as remarkably grotesque as it is jarring. But The Lighthouse is also very, very funny. This isn’t the kind of funny that’s going to have audiences hooting and hollering in the theaters and rolling around in the aisles, though. It’s the kind of tongue-in-cheek funny that you might feel better about holding in during your screening. The script- which is co-written by Eggers and his brother Max- is full of bizarre double entendres and overreactions, and it’s accented by the best “you won’t believe this is in a classical story” fart jokes since Dante’s Inferno. Although he is telling a period horror story, Eggers tells it in a silly, whimsical fashion as James Whale did in films like Old Dark House and Bride of Frankenstein (with the same level of subversive hidden messages, too). “Why’d you spill yer beans?” and “Yer fond of me lobster, aint ye?” are bound to be some of the most memorable movie lines in recent memory!
While some modern elements of comedic timing come across in the film’s stellar script, the greatest reminder that this is a motion picture from 2019 comes with its incredible sound design. The howling rain, the thunderous storms, and the never-ending waves are all recreated in dreary detail. The foghorn is an omnipresent menace, booming out throughout the film in a way that pierces the soul as much as it pierces the ears. And that mermaid… that darn mermaid! Its shrieks are eerily human and at the same time a product of the sea, and they haunt the viewer in a way that enhances the disturbing images on screen. This movie is loud and aggressive and visceral, and it helps transport the viewer to a time of massive machinery and limited protection from the elements of nature.
The Lighthouse is a unique, distinct movie-going experience. It can be enjoyed on a literal level, and fans of the film will find years of gratification in picking this movie apart because every scene is so layered with symbolism and dripping with subtext. The Lighthouse is what happens when a visionary director is given the budget and leeway to craft a cinematic work of art in partnership with creative and accomplished performers; and it’s proof that good films could still come out of an industry that’s otherwise as madly fixated on billion dollar opening weekends and international box office markets as Thomas and Ephraim are fixated on the enchantment in the light.