The sea is still in many ways an unconquered, mysterious frontier that can erode your sanity, strip you of all your amenities, and even take your life, despite its great beauty, and this was even moreso in the 1800s, when Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” takes place.
The film is shot in all black and white with period lenses to mimic films from early last century, and it’s shot in a crowded, nearly square 1:19:1 aspect ratio, which is fitting, as it tells the tale of fictional Lighthousemen Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) who slowly both go insane on the rock.
We see the story primarily though Winslow’s eyes, as he is a former timber-man who changed professions to get a new start. His superior, Wake, who is a veteran Lighthouseman, gives the younger Winslow grueling tasks to complete, and no matter how well Winslow completes them, Wake always has some sort of criticism. Winslow finds a small figurine of a mermaid left by his predecessor, who went insane, and soon after starts to have strange visions of mermaids, dead people, and tentacle monsters that slowly begins to wear on his pysche.
Wake and Winslow become more comfortable with each other as the film goes on, primarily during dinner, when Wake allows Winslow to unwind. Winslow is reluctant at first, but he slowly begins to reveal bit and pieces of his past to Wake, but Winslow realizes pretty quickly that being a Lighthouseman is not the life for him, and is scheduled to leave the lighthouse around halfway through the movie. However, it was not to be.
Throughout the first half of the film, Winslow encounters an aggressive one-eyed gull, and despite Wake’s warnings that killing a seabird is bad luck, Winslow ends up killing it when he finds it standing over a dying gull that fell into their drinking water, supposedly killed by the one-eyed gull. As soon as he kills the gull, a nasty storm appears, and prevents Winslow’s boat from arriving. He stays with Wake, who never allows him to even see the light room in the light house, until their relationship reaches a breaking point.
“The Lighthouse” is a really good film, and Pattinson and Dafoe knock it out of the park with their period-accurate performances. Both play despicable men who end up hating each other, and the two never quite learn to work together despite the fact that their situation demanded it. Wake take abuses his position by overworking Winslow and belittling him with his rank in order to keep him obedient, and Winslow slowly loses respect for him, as we see him slowly realize that Wake isn’t pulling his weight around the Lighthouse. And when the two get stranded because of the storm, Winslow slowly begins to realize that no higher authority will come, and there is little reason to keep following Wake.
The film was originally based on a fragment by Edgar Allan Poe, and despite the film having grown miles beyond the scope of the fragment, the film seems to have elements Poe’s Gothic horror, from it’s extremely dark cinematography, to its unsteady, dreary, atmosphere, to the dark souls of Winslow and Wake themselves.
“The Lighthouse” is a film made by a very talented director who had a clear vision, and it doesn’t stray from Eggers’ maddening portrayal of the sea and isolation. It’s a beautifully made film with absolutely no fat on it. Give it a watch if you haven’t. You won’t be disappointed.
“The Lighthouse” gets a 9/10