Arts movie review

Do not go gentle into that good light

Robert Eggers’ ‘The Lighthouse’ is a stunningly beautiful experiment in the horrors of cabin fever

The Lighthouse
Directed by Robert Eggers
Screenplay by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers
Starring Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe
Rated R, Now Playing

A pitch black screen and the sound of crashing waves — from this void, we are born into the world of Robert Eggers’ latest period masterpiece, The Lighthouse. Its first scene plunges us into the sea itself. Howling winds, the water churning into ice cold sprays of mist, and a rickety boat shuddering against the storm; we might as well be watching the river Styx carry a pair of damned souls into the very depths of the Underworld. No wonder the film, shot in black-and-white on location off the coast of Nova Scotia, never quite seems to shake loose its bleak, dismal opening shot. 

When the boat finally arrives at its destination — an island that is little more than a bare outcrop jutting out from the middle of the sea — it leaves as quickly as it deposits its cargo: “wickies” Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), who have arrived to man the titular lighthouse for the next four weeks. Over the following days, the men step into an uneasy routine. While Wake mans the lantern room at night, Winslow spends each day toiling away at menial tasks under Wake’s suffocating supervision; he carries containers of kerosene up narrow staircases, paints the wind-scraped walls of the tower, and repeatedly sweeps and mops the floor. The monotony of daily existence, coupled with a nagging doubt that Wake is hiding something, slowly gnaws away at Winslow. He quarrels with seagulls, obsesses over a buried mermaid figurine, and gives into increasingly hallucinatory fantasies, eventually losing his grip on reality. 

The first thing that needs to be said about The Lighthouse is that the visuals are downright stunning. In building his world, Eggers favors establishing shots and extended closeups over elaborate camera movements. The still cinematography and rich, crusty texture of the film (which was shot on 35mm) immerses the audience into the quiet, unsettling isolation of life at sea. And by intercutting scenes from Pattinson’s perspective with jarringly quick shots of the supernatural — a mermaid lying unconscious on the beach, or Wake’s face contorting with pleasure as he stares into the light of the lantern — Eggers blurs the line between reality and fantasy until the audience no longer has any idea what to believe.

When I had the privilege of meeting with Eggers just a few days before The Lighthouse released, our short conversation revealed that the film’s captivating visuals were born out of a deliberate and careful attention to detail. In Eggers’s own words, the decision to shoot in black-and-white was made to “convey the bleakness and austerity of the film.” But cinematographer Jarin Blaschke also passed the film through an orthochromatic filter, since such film is not sensitive to red light, it vividly emphasizes every pore and blood vessel on Pattinson and Dafoe’s faces, giving the impression of “salty seamen,” while also rendering blue skies white and bleak. Eggers’ contagious excitement about such technical details of the film display the inner workings of a brilliant auteur who has painstakingly assembled every piece of the film.

Pattinson and Dafoe prove the perfect match for Eggers’ creative vision; every movement, glance, and retort underscores the tension bubbling between the two men as they bristle under the discomfort of living in such close quarters. The film’s preferred currency of communication is visceral: we see Winslow and Wake’s bodies belch, fart, sweat, spit, and drink within the cramped corridors of the lighthouse. Pattinson in particular excels as the inexperienced lighthouse keeper who chafes under Wake’s stifling, authoritarian presence. Eggers emphasizes Pattinson’s every movement, grunt, and grimace until he is reduced to little more than an animalistic body. At one point, when Winslow attempts to empty a bedpan into the sea only to have the wind smear his own feces all over his face, all he can do is let out a primal scream. 

Wake, the lighthouse veteran who is as grizzled as his bushy mane, is outspoken by contrast; with his folksy dialect and superstitious beliefs, he might as well have stepped out of an Elizabethan sonnet. “Bad luck to kill a seabird,” he cautions Winslow, a logger uninitiated into the traditions of sailors and seafarers. The repeated references to Coleridge, Melville, and the mythology of the sea gain a distinctly new power under Dafoe’s masterful delivery, painting his character with an aura of nefarious mystery while also foreshadowing several of the story’s central developments.

If Eggers carefully relies on Western European nautical traditions and folktales of lighthouse keepers going mad in constructing his film, then he also draws from a distinctly more modern mythology: that of social theorists Jeremy Bentham and Michel Foucault. The lighthouse, in all its imposing verticality, can be viewed as a panopticon, the watchtower within which Dafoe’s overbearing patriarch documents every day in a locked away notebook and jealously guards his prized lantern. It’s unsurprising then that Winslow feels increasingly on edge as the film progresses; notice how, each time he attempts to commit some transgression, Wake emerges at once from some unseen corner, as if every single one of Winslow’s actions is being monitored. It is by arousing this feeling of being constantly watched, of being imprisoned, that Eggers seeps his film in an atmosphere of sin: sin against nature, the deeper, more hidden sin of murder, and the historical sin of slavery itself. 

The film’s greatest genius lies in using its aesthetics to emphasize these narrative suggestions. By shooting the film in a boxy, skinny aspect ratio, Eggers simultaneously fills the screen with his characters’ faces while also surrounding them at all times with two large walls of black on either edge of the screen. But Eggers goes one step further. He shoots The Lighthouse as if the film were taking place within a whole series of frames: the wooden frame of the interior of the lighthouse inside which almost all of the film’s action takes place; the sonic frame of the omnipresent foghorn that punctures the environment at regular intervals; and the larger structuring frame of mythology and allegory itself, in the form of the countless allusions to Greek sirens, Neptune, and the sin of “killing seabirds.” It is through these tightly packed, nested frames that Eggers constructs the richly claustrophobic atmosphere of the film, as if the audience is imprisoned within the confines of the lighthouse right alongside Pattinson as he proceeds breakneck towards his inevitable fate.

If there is a weakness to the film, it is by design. The film functions more as a meticulous experiment in mood and tone than as a clearcut, engaging narrative. Some viewers may be confused or turned off by the ambiguity of the film, which resists tidy explanations and ends with a surrealist final scene that offers more questions than answers. But Eggers relishes in how the multiple layers of the film leave it open to interpretation. When I probed him about his decision to “break the 180” in the nightly dinner table conversations by repeatedly switching camera positions so that Wake and Winslow keep changing places in the frame, he acknowledged the thematic undercurrent of identity without clarifying his intent in such scenes. Is Wake merely another of Winslow’s fantasies, perhaps of his own future self? Is Winslow an unreliable narrator, insane, or simply the victim of a maliciously dishonest Wake? And what are we supposed to make of that dazzling final shot? Audiences will have to answer such questions for themselves, but one thing is for certain: Eggers is a master craftsman, and he’s just getting started.