The Lighthouse Review
Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse is a film about two people slowly going mad. Not only that, the film pushes you to the edge of sanity, too. Through sound design and filmmaking style, the film evokes the feeling of watching someone else’s fever-induced nightmare. The constant crashing of waves, screeching of seabirds, and pounding rain create the sonic landscape of the film. The Lighthouse wants to drive you a little mad. Thanks to Eggers’ direction and a pair of deeply committed performances, it achieves that goal.
The tone of The Lighthouse is set from its first gloomy frame. This is a film that will be described as black-and-white but should more accurately be called gray. Distinct blacks and whites are few and far between; the weather seems perpetually overcast. The film opens with two men, Thomas (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim (Robert Pattinson) arriving on a remote island to work a shift at an old lighthouse. Thomas, the older and more grizzled of the two, is the one in charge. He barks orders at Pattinson’s Ephraim, refers to him in diminutive terms like “lad,” or gets lost in telling a long-winded story. He also farts. A lot.
Ephraim handles the majority of the daily duties, like cleaning and repairing the lighthouse. He toils in the rain and surf, develops a rivalry with a seagull, and is forced to endure Thomas’ tall tales over dinner. After dinner, Thomas heads upstairs to work the light, a duty Ephraim is denied over and over again. As Ephraim becomes more and more obsessed with what exactly happens at the top of the lighthouse, he also begins to receive increasingly terrifying visions. A film that begins in experimental territory dives into the surreal, leading us to wonder which of these gents will crack first. The Lighthouse slowly takes on the feeling of a car crash, one that you can’t look away from. Two people slowly closing in on one another, and the collision isn’t going to be pretty. Thomas and Ephraim aren’t exactly friends; their relationship reminds us that, sometimes, nothing is scarier than being stuck with someone you can’t stand.
Dafoe embodies the phrase “salty dog” here. He’s gruff and looks like he’d smell of brine; all he talks about are his days at sea. It’s a captivating performance; as the older of the pair, we’re left to wonder if he’s just a crotchety old jerk or if he’s actively trying to destroy his co-worker. Pattinson, however, is even better. He plays Ephraim as a desperate man, one fleeing to this remote hideaway for reasons that are revealed much later in the movie. His plight is truly tragic; he needs this job to climb out of the hole he’s dug for himself. He doesn’t just crave the light; he needs it. Pattinson throws himself wholeheartedly into the role and it’s chill-inducing to behold.
While the stars of the film are Pattinson, Dafoe, and a belligerent seagull, The Lighthouse constantly calls attention to the choices of its director. The film is shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, heightening the claustrophobia of the already tight quarters of the lighthouse. There is a non-stop cacophony of noise; between the wind, rain, waves, and machinery of the lighthouse, it almost feels like the island itself is trying to drive these two men mad. This is a film that is admirable in its craft and execution, and it somehow manages to stick the landing. The kind of experimental provocation that Eggers is attempting here is difficult to pull off, but he does it with seeming ease.
Perhaps The Lighthouse is Eggers’ vision of a salty dog tale, an urban legend told on the high seas. Thomas and Ephraim both go mad in the end, and the result isn’t great for either of them. The horror here is intangible; the more you try to grasp it, the more it slips through your fingers. Some may see that as a knock against the film; how can it frighten you if the scares don’t feel real? In my book, this is a positive, as The Lighthouse takes more than a few notes from the Lovecraftian playbook. Sometimes the indescribable is more horrifying than the tangible.