The Lighthouse (2019)
Written by Max & Robert Eggers
Directed by Robert Eggers
“DAMN YE! Let Neptune strike ye dead, Winslow! HAAAAAARK!”
Thus begins the great invocation of the ocean god by the wicky Thomas Wake against his co-worker Iphraim Winslow. Both men, stuck on an island somewhere in the middle of the sea, left to fend for themselves and tend the titular lighthouse. The job is, by its nature, an isolating and stressful one, stressful to not only the body but also the mind. It doesn’t take long before Iphraim becomes deeply suspicious of the veteran Wake, whose previous partner believed there were mystic powers imbued in the lamp of the lighthouse and vanished after going mad. The two men battle it out in passive-aggressive and drunken fashion, slowly cranking up the stakes as their rescue from this damned place appears to have forgotten them.
The Lighthouse is an intense film experience, a slow burn with volcanic explosions of emotion and violence. Everything in the film works because of director Robert Eggers’s meticulous eye, ear, and heart for period detail. Just as Eggers did with The Witch, this is a movie that vibrates with tension, yet feels like a genuine recreation of its time. The dialect is so distinct and the vocabulary fascinatingly archaic that the viewer will feel pulled into another world where the common spoke like a Shakespeare character. There’s also a genuine sense of grime and filth, reminding us that the “good old days” were brutal and dirty. Piss, vomit, blood, and other fluids smear the screen as these men settle deeper into their squalor.
Willem Dafoe seethes like an animal, never chewing up the scenery; instead, he devours it. He’s the talkative one of the two, but not friendly. Wake keeps to himself during working hours but expects table banter when dinner is served. At one point he takes such affront to an insult about his cooking he strikes Iphraim about the face with his tin cup and sobbingly begs for a compliment about his lobster. Dafoe is given meaty chunks of dialogue, dripping with salty sea dog brine for him to spit at his inscrutable comrade. He has a scene where he delivers the most solemn monologue while having dirt thrown in his face and mouth and actually eats it while continuing with his lines.
Robert Pattinson is no slouch either with his Winslow playing things coy for the first act of the picture. We see the creeping paranoia and guilt on his face, eventually boiling over when a tempest arrives to trap our two characters on the barren island. When Winslow finally cracks, it is straight down the middle and will never be fixed. There’s a moment in the third act where Winslow is ascending the staircase of the lighthouse, bathed in darkness, a beam of light illuminating his maddened eyes that should send chills down the spine of every viewer. We are prisoners in Winslow’s fever dream of mermaids, seagulls, and the devilish man who sleeps across the room.
The film is shot in stark black & white and provides a masterclass in how this medium should be treated. This isn’t merely a desaturation of a color print, Eggers works hard to create a textured and luxurious canvas. Shadows are used with a deft touch, and light, fittingly, is a profound element. There is also a fantastic use of sound; when the wickies first arrive, Winslow cringes every time the loud foghorn sounds. The ocean is ever-present when the men are outside. The siren call of a mermaid pierces our skulls. A triumphant, tragic, and horrific roar in the finale threatens to overwhelm us. It is all so horrifically beautiful.