“He believed that there was some enchantment in the light. Went mad, he did”
The ocean is a common recurring motif in the horror genre, so filled with mystery and a whole host of tall tales and mythical creatures lurking within the briny deep. For Robert Eggers, the young upstart New Englander whose first film (The Witch) sought to present an authentic 17th century tale of witchcraft, the sea holds untold wonders. Mermaids, krakens, Elder Gods, all of them hidden in the uncharted waters that cover far more of the planet than land does. When you compound that by dialing back the technology and setting the film in the late 1800s, when even less is known about the sea and superstition rules the day, there’s even more possibility to plumb the depths of a horror genre piece. This is The Lighthouse.
Our frame of reference in The Lighthouse is nearly as narrow as its aspect ratio. There’s a young man, Ephraim Wilson (Robert Pattison), who has come to a remote island on the New England coast to tend to its lighthouse alongside the older, swarthy and rather flatulent Thomas Wake (WIllem Dafoe). Thomas delegates all the menial tasks to his new charge while zealously hoarding access to the light. He claims it’s for Wilson’s own good, as his last assistant was so transfixed by it that it drove him insane. Of course, the best way to make someone want something is to keep him from it, and Wilson soon becomes equally zealous in his need to see things for himself. Throw a nearly apocalyptic storm and more booze than any same person would imbibe, and calling the result a combustible situation would be quite the understatement.
It certainly looks the part. From the release of the first trailer, The Lighthouse felt like it could have been some ancient artifact from the late 1920s that somehow resurfaced nearly a century later. Its aspect ratio, a startling 1.19:1, is even boxier than 4:3 or the vaunted Academy ratio (a positively roomy 1.37) recently used by the likes of Cold War, First Reformed and The Artist. Its black and white cinematography is grim, with Pattinson and Dafoe dirtied and gaunted up something fierce. Even more so than The Witch, The Lighthouse literally feels like a product of its time, enhancing the sense of spectacle in its own unique ways.
Despite his similar approach in utilizing authentic lighting, naturalistic wardrobes and accurate dialogue of the time, there’s a major difference to how Eggers mounted The Lighthouse compared to The Witch. In The Witch, there was never a question what was going on. There was definitely a witch living in the woods and it definitely terrorized the family living on their remote farm. Eggers has no problem showing it to us early in all of its gory detail. There’s metaphorical content to be found in The Witch, of course, but the central antagonist’s existence is never in question. The Lighthouse, on the other hand, is far more slippery. We see things, horrors and fantastical creatures, but it’s never clear what’s actually happening. Are those tentacles real or are they (as they say) a trick of the light? Is the unholy klaxon of the foghorn that sounds in two long bursts at regular intervals throughout the entire film even real? Is it part of the soundtrack? Is it in Pattinson’s head?
Claustrophobia and cabin fever are the obvious touchstones here, with these two men forced into cohabitation, the only sentient beings on this spit of rock we see beyond a particularly ornery one-eyed seagull. The tiny shack they live in, the even tinier attic bedroom they both sleep in, the cramped conditions of sheds and coal stoves and the spiral staircase of the lighthouse itself. Sure, the extreme aspect ratio plays into the idea that this is a movie from the 20s, but it just as much reinforces that sense of claustrophobia, confirming to Winslow that there’s no escape. Not from Wake, not from the light, not from the sea. He’s trapped with nothing more than this wild old lunatic and a mind that seems destined to slide into mania in much the same way.
It's up to Pattinson and Defoe, then, to sell that internal struggle and slow descent into madness. Defoe is a coot pretty much from the jump, maybe only a few degrees removed from the crazy old sea captain from The Simpsons, but more than happy to throw himself head over heels into the performance with complete abandon. He rants and raves and sings and drinks and farts and stumbles in what could be the most unglamorous leading turn in some time. Granted, he has never been one for glamor, and in that sense, this seems like the role he was born and bred to play. Pattinson continues to challenge himself, straying further and further from the days of Twilight and Harry Potter movies with every daring character study and eccentric directorial collaboration. Wilson starts off rather normal and does what he can to stay that way, but the slow erosion of his psyche is accelerated thanks to extensive alcohol consumption once it’s clear he won’t easily escape Wake, the island or that mysterious light. Their accents are thick, and at times nigh impenetrable to the point that subtitles would likely be necessary to understand everything they’re saying, but the point comes across regardless of the garbled speech that tells it.
What The Lighthouse makes abundantly clear, then, is the continued evolution of Robert Eggers as one of the true rising stars in the horror genre and filmmaking in general. The visual style, the acting from Pattinson and Defoe, the nightmarish story and ending, all of it adds up to another frankly incredible piece of cinema. I don’t think that The Lighthouse is quite as good as The Witch, which happened to be my favorite film of 2016, but it’s not far off. His throwback style and desire for naturalism has made him a unique voice in the industry, something that appears unlikely to change with his next announced project, the 10th century Icelandic Viking drama The Northman. It will be interesting to see what happens if Eggers decides to make a contemporary film, but we’re two for two with his current approach and there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to make daring and engaging projects of life and culture bygone. I know one thing for sure: I’ll be there day one.