Robert Eggers returns with another claustrophobic, tense and shrieking tale, this time the story of two men thrown together in the murky depths of a secluded island in the 1890s. Compared to Eggers’ earlier, critically-acclaimed film The Witch (2015) which sees a family succumb to witchcraft and superstition, The Lighthouse is the story of madness materialised by isolation as wickie Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) attempts to survive the ordeal of solitude. This is a job made more difficult by his boss, an irritating old man named Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), who gives him no company except for moralistic lecturing and the occasional fart.
The film in a certain way cleverly follows the lull of the ocean: at times, it is calming and ritualistic as Winslow goes about his daily chores as means of distraction – despite being given the most difficult tasks by his rather inactive boss – whilst at others, the violence of a scene stuns like an unexpected wave. Charged with sexual connotations, the film builds up tension through Winslow as we begin to form an alliance with him: contrary to us however, who must remain tight-chested and shallow-breathed as the square screen gradually closes in, Winslow’s character is characterised by the ups and downs of building tension and releasing it. Often for instance, he masturbates to a figurine of a mermaid he finds in a hole in his bed, a fantasy that reappears in his dreams as he discovers the washed up body of a mermaid on the seashore. In the most powerful scene of the film, he batters a seagull to death, black blood splattering across the cistern. Of course, it is a release of tension welcomed by both Winslow and the audience, but a sinister reminder of Wake’s previous reprimand to never kill a seagull, for fear of bad luck. Twistingly, Winslow’s sexual appetite is only fulfilled by his fantasy world and by Wake’s appearances naked on top of the lighthouse: at one point, the men drunkenly hold onto each other and nearly kiss, before throwing each other away in yet another violent turn of character.
The film is designed so that we’re never quite sure what to believe, nor where to look, thus following Winslow’s gradual descent into madness. Eggers emphasises the claustrophobia and incarceration of the island, circled by miles and miles of water. And yet, there is never any room, neither in the screen which at times looks too small for the bulk of its content, nor on the island, where everywhere Wake seems to appear to remind Winslow that he is both alone and constantly in his ominous – and rather infuriating – presence. In many ways, Dafoe’s character is like sea water: it’s everywhere, but you cannot use it to survive. It is Pattinson that shines through however, constantly on the brink of snapping and in the climax scene, delivering a weighty monologue that reflects the entirety of the film’s dichotomous nature. His performance, and that of Dafoe’s, support the plot which sometimes almost seems too slow.
The cinematography is superb: The Lighthouse’s attention to detail in shots is at times oddly symmetrical when compared to its chaotic assembling of scenes, and at times so intimate one can almost feel seawater dripping onto one’s skin. Marked by its bipolarity and its twisted mix of horror and humour, its standout attribute remains nevertheless Mark Korven’s music: mechanical whirs, old seamen songs and the ever presence of the cries of seagulls are a sinister reminder of the two men’s inevitable fate. It is thus with its innovative cinematography, Pattinson and Dafoe’s strangely opposing acting styles and characters and the impending doom of the soundtrack that Eggers succeeds in creating a horrific case of cabin fever that inhabits the audience long after the film is finished.
The Lighthouse hits UK Cinemas on the 31st of January 2020
Edited by Andriani Scordellis, Film Editor
Watch us catch up with the cast and crew of The Lighthouse on the red carpet of The 63rd BFI London Film Festival below: