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The Lighthouse is another strong film from young writer/director Robert Eggers (The Witch, 2015). In spirit and overall feel, this is like a cross between There Will Be Blood (2007) and Eraserhead (1977)– take the over the top machismo of the former and mix it with the dark and insular atmosphere of the latter and you have the experience of watching The Lighthouse. Needless to say, it’s not for everyone.
This movie is about madness and cabin fever. It tells the story of two lighthouse keepers (Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson) marooned on an island off the coast of New England in the late 1800s. We see their initial relationship, marked by mutual suspicion and resentment (and at times erotic tension), devolve into overtly hostile and violent combat, as each becomes increasingly unmoored. Various bits and pieces of nautical folklore (mermaids, sirens etc.) add a layer to the story, and help elucidate the characters’ mental decline. The boxy / black and white visual style, repetition of certain atmospheric sounds, two person cast, and limited environment (the whole film takes place in a handful of sets / locations) all create a claustrophobic experience for the viewer. If you’re not in the right frame of mind for this brutal, misery-laden atmosphere, you will likely be watching the clock, wondering if you can handle another extended scene of these abrasive characters drunkenly yelling at each other.
Defoe and Pattinson both do an excellent job in this movie, and being the only people in the cast (save for some brief moments), there is ample room for each of them to deliver spirited and variously comic / disturbing monologues. The writing, dialogue, production design, and costumes all ooze authenticity. This was one of the strongest aspects of The Witch as well – the great attention to detail and the effort to almost resurrect a specific time and place.
Visually, there is so much to like here. Shot in black and white, and presented in a very appropriate boxy / square aspect ratio, the visual style is reminiscent of much older movies. The square framing immediately conveys a sense of claustrophobia that is key to the overall story. Eggers excels at creating practical seeming special effects that are tastefully done and effective at arresting the viewer, creating a real sense of wonder. At a time when computer generated images have made literally anything possible in TV / movies, the visual effects in The Lighthouse feel earned and organic. You have to see it for yourself, but two of my favorite moments are: 1) during a hallucination/dream sequence, Defoe briefly appears as a kind of mythic sea god, with bright eyes glaring down at Pattinson, and 2) at the end of the film, when Pattinson finally lays eyes on the fabled and forbidden light; his resultant madness is conveyed through an ingenious series of shots showing his contorted face accompanied by distorted / loud bursts of sound. It’s an intense and effective presentation of this long awaited climax.
The Witch, The Lighthouse, I’m sensing a trend here. In opting for these very basic, to the point titles, Eggers is kind of signaling his intent – a desire to tell compact, neat (albeit unique and dark) stories that offer a very specific cinematic experience. In each case, he tells these stories well, with attention to historically accurate detail and with great respect and facility for the filmmaking craft. You really have to want to dive into these worlds, though; they don’t coax you in. The visual choices and the at times inscrutable period dialogue will likely turn away some viewers. But if you have the interest and the patience, these are excellent movies rich in detail and full of inspired creative moments.