Review By Caitlin (Los Angeles)
Robert Eggers’ 2019 film, The Lighthouse, is a psychological sexually-charged maritime tale that will have you squirming in your seat. Davy Jones’ Locker unleashes hell onto an old lighthouse keeper by the name of Thomas Wake and his clandestine new wickie, Ephraim Winslow, in a film that meshes Greek mythology with 1890s America. But screaming sirens and tantalizing tentacle creatures are no match for the monsters embedded within the human psyche.
The new apprentice Ephraim, is played by Robert Pattinson, who gives a gritty performance as a mad man on the run after murdering a timberman. The older lighthouse keeper, Wake, is played by theatre connoisseur Willem Dafoe who speaks in poetic monologues in a coarse piratey voice that puts Geoffrey Rush’s Captain Barbossa to shame. It has been awhile since I’ve seen such detailed acting on screen and am surprised neither Dafoe nor Pattinson received any Academy nominations. Despite them being the only speaking characters, both carry the film by working off one another effortlessly and without fault. The characters’ strange bond is a rollercoaster in itself, disapproval of one another at first, to dancing and hugging, and then eventually loathing one another to the point of murder.
The Lighthouse is a story about identity. Soon we learn that young Ephraim’s real first name is actually the same as the lighthouse keeper, Thomas. With all the reoccurring symbolism of circles and spirals it is hard not to think that maybe these two Thomas’ are the same person just in different cycles of life; a construct of one’s mind gone utterly insane when stranded from civilization.
Shot on 35mm in black and white at an aspect ratio of 1.19:1 (commonly used during the late 1920s) this film will force you to take a step back in time. The squared ratio will make you feel connected to the two leads, yet after a while claustrophobic.
Fortunately, the cinematography was nominated for an Academy Award in 2020. Director of Photography, Jarin Blaschke captures the bleak and decaying lifestyle on an island so isolated your mind will quickly erode. Blaschke used custom filter lenses to emphasize the blemishes, blood vessels and wrinkles on the actors’ faces that are exposed to the harsh elements of daily life.
The film flashes intensely between two colors, black and white. Dark rooms, shadowed faces and dimly lit spaces occur only during the long nights when both characters eat together and drink away their sorrows, the darkness gradually manifesting into their minds. The bright flashes of exposed light symbolize Ephraim’s struggle to discover enlightenment which radiates from the lamp at the top of the lighthouse. These bursts of highlights shimmer and glow on screen adding to the mystical dreamscape of day, and preparing you for the nightmare that will ensue during the evenings.
What lies at the top of the lighthouse is what Ephraim truly seeks. Concocting in his head an idea of a mystical power, or something of significant worth within the beaming lamp itself. The more Wake prevents him from seeing it, the more deluded Ephraim becomes. Finally, when Ephraim gains access to the lamp, he gazes into the Fresnel lens, a McGuffin of sorts, the radiating light pierces his flesh metaphorically speaking, as he howls in intense pleasure, reaching enlightenment and complete madness at the same time. By the end Ephraim lies naked amongst the rocks, sea gulls picking at his open stomach, eyes plucked from his skull, a death similar to that of Greek titan, Prometheus, punished for eternity by being cast upon a rock whose insides were too eaten by birds.
The sound design festers under your skin, haunting and harrowing, poignant and terrifying. A deep soundscape of foghorns, crashing waves, strong winds and mechanical machinery overplayed with high pitch cries and whistles causing uneasiness.
Clenched in my seat, unable to relax for even a second, this film wants you to feel dirty and uncomfortable, and like Eggers’ previous film The Witch (2015) you are left seeking answers. Was this just a simple tale of two men going mad on an isolated island or is it exploring one man’s inability to escape from his own guilty conscience; he may finally have reached enlightenment but at what price?
This film is a slow burn and over the course of two hours you will watch both characters drift into insanity. It certainly is not for everyone but cinema lovers will rejoice at this low budget arthouse flick, a must see in the theatre for an extremely obscure experience.