Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse is an absorbing, unparalleled cinematic experience. As I entered the theater, the first thing I noticed was the shape of the movie screen. Instead of the typical widescreen, we are accustomed to, the screen was draped with curtains on each side, restricting it to a near square shape. Either this was an error or The Lighthouse was shot in an aspect ratio rarely used since early films, like Fritz Lang’s “M”. There was no error, of course.
The Lighthouse is a finely-crafted, mesmerizingly maddening film that submerges viewers into the depths of the human psyche. Every shot is meticulously designed by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke using specially processed black and white film stock and presented in the 1.19:1 aspect ratio to create a tight, claustrophobic framing. It’s the perfect look for a tale of isolation, two “wickies” (lighthouse keepers) tending to the remote island lighthouse far off the shore of New England in the 19th century.
Willem Defoe plays Thomas Wake the grizzled, bearded, oft-farting, gravel-voiced elder statesman of the lighthouse who seemingly enjoys barking out orders like a sea mariner of old. (Think, “Aye there captain.”) On the other side of the coin is the near-silent, Efraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) the newly hired lighthouse keeper who just arrived on the island to start his four-week shift working the post. He pushes through his mundane daily tasks, doing so speaking few words. So few words, in fact, that we do not even learn his names until about a third of the way through the film.
Every scene follows these two trudging through their daily tasks, resiliently but without any passion or joy. Not as little as a smile. Efraim is just there to earn his money. And, even though he is the only other inhabitant of the small island, Wake seems intent on proving his superiority. Even when there are only two people with no one else to acknowledge their efforts, the competitive nature of man still rears its ugly head.
At one point, Efraim struggles to carry a barrel of oil, which probably outweighs him, up the dangerously steep spiral staircase to the top of the lighthouse. Once reaching the top the exhausted, frustrated, yet proud worker is met by Thomas who, without a hint of gratefulness points out that all the oil he required was a much smaller, handheld oil can. We know right there that this is going to be a long four weeks for both of them.
As Thomas warns, “Boredom makes men to villains.” This is displayed no better than the untimely demise of a seagull at the hands of Ephraim – if he was teetering on the brink of madness, this may be when he leaps right in. To fend off the lapses of insanity the two resort to late-night alcohol-laden drunkenness that leads to physical scuffles, revealing long-winded tales of days of yore, dancing, screaming and singing. As the alcohol flows, Ephraim’s paranoia and resentment towards Thomas begins to rise to the surface. The resentment stems from Thomas’ insistence that Ephraim stays out of the lightroom atop of the lighthouse. The more he is told to stay out, the more his longing to see what’s inside grows.
The repetitiveness and tightness of their existence begin to wear on the viewer as much as the characters. As the waves endlessly slap against the rocks, the deafening sound of the foghorn blast interrupting that ability to speak or think. As the editing becomes more quickly paced, we are dragged into their world with no space for a mental break. It is here when Blaschke’s cinematography with it’s unsettlingly tight, symmetrical framing of the shots effectively make us feel trapped. The simplicity of shots prohibits us to set our gaze anywhere else but locked into this already confined setting.
The film captures that uncomfortable feeling of being stuck in a stalled elevator (flatulence included) for more than a few minutes, or has had a particularly long delay on the runway in a full plane (flatulence included) where the flight attendants are constantly reminding you that you must stay in your seats. Suddenly the helplessness kicks in. When will you get out of here? Will you ever get out of here? At the same time, the nuisance level of everyone and ever around you kicks in.
The film becomes less chronological and near hallucinatory when visions of bodies begin to haunt Ephraim. He is left uncertain if the eerie mermaids he envisions are the after-effects of his masturbatory dreams or haunting physical nightmarish creatures.
The film owns its hyper-stylized throwback nature. Eggers captures the feel of films of the early 20th century from the aforementioned shot composition to the bold contrast of the black and white film highlights every expressive line in the actors’ faces, turning a simple look into a menacing stare. Several times the actors look directly into the camera providing a peek directly into the eyes.
At times they are blank as if posing for a photo – it’s something seen in the earliest of films before people became aware of the power of the camera. These shots combined with the unnerving sound design which is full of the unrelenting ambient sounds of waves, gulls, and fog horns plus the menacing score pull us deeper into their increasingly unsettled reality.
It may be somewhat surprising that throughout this exploration of mental unraveling there are numerous moments of great humor. Credit goes to both actors, Pattinson and Defoe. Eggers unleashes them to deliver very explosive performances unhampered by many of the restrictions of modern films. The raw emotion helps transcend beyond the more constrained acting we have grown to know. These are hold-nothing-back performances.
I would not be surprised to see The Lighthouse receive numerous nominations this year – acting nods, direction, cinematography, screenplay and art direction are all on the table. There is so much to take in here it almost demands to be watched more than once. This looks to be a mainstay in film school classrooms for years to come. Eggers delivers a haunting piece of art that is hard to shake.