Wed. Jan 26th, 2022

Photo by Ilya Mauter via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Isolation, drunkenness, nightmares, hallucinations, psychotic aggression, sexual frustration, unusually aggressive seagulls, black magic, mermaids and a lighthouse that may be an eldritch monster. After leaving the 7 o’clock showing of the film at the time of this writing, I can’t tell who is crazier: the characters and plot of the movie, or the director behind the film.

“The Lighthouse” is directed by Robert Eggers and stars Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as two lighthouse keepers who arrive on a small island off the New England coast in the 1890’s to tend to the lighthouse there. Dafoe stars as Thomas Wake, a crusty, old sea dog who has been a wickie — a lighthouse keeper — for years now and may or may not be keeping a dark secret about the lighthouse.

Pattinson stars as Ephraim Winslow, a young drifter and former lumberjack looking for new work as Wake’s partner in tending to the lighthouse but also is starting to suffer from terrifying hallucinations and dreams. As the days go on, both of the men start to wear on each other, going from being laughing chums one moment to screaming at each other the next, as the darkness inside both of them begins to ooze out — culminating in an ending that feels like part mythology, part surreal fantasy.

The most immediate thing presented by “The Lighthouse” is that this film is simply dismal and oppressive, and I don’t just mean because the entire film is in monochrome. Throughout the entire film, we almost never, as audience members, feel at ease. With every scene in and around the lighthouse, there is this intense cloud that looms over our two characters as it feels like they really are at the edge of the world at times. Meanwhile, this dismal and oppressive air that oozes out of the diegesis is completely inescapable, making it an excellent work of gothic, Lovecraftian and psychological horror as we too feel trapped on this island where escape is nigh impossible, from the moment the two leads arrive, to the chaos that is the final act.

Dafoe and Pattinson present stunning performances of two men absolutely losing their minds from being isolated for weeks, or possibly something else.

I say, “almost never,” because for such an intense film, there are some genuinely funny moments that made me laugh. This ranges from deadpan one-liners to some absurdist dialogue. One scene, for example, comes from the trailer, where Wake wishes Winslow death, only because Winslow said he didn’t like his cooking — which is then capped off with Winslow giving a complete deadpan response to Wake!

This is all due in no small part to the cinematography, mise-en-scène and acting. The way the entire film is shot in 35mm monochrome with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio makes it feel as though the plot of the film exists within a different time. It all feels anachronistic as an effect, but in a good way. Special mention must also be directed to how every shot within “The Lighthouse” is carefully framed like a painting. In multiple sequences, the use of foreground and background, the use of empty space and shot composition, mixed with smooth camera work and camera angles, culminate in a beautifully made film. It is both vintage and modern at the same time.

The mise-en-scène works in tangent with the cinematography. What is especially noteworthy about the mise-en-scène, at least to me at the time of writing this, is the lighting and the set design of the film. The lighting is great in how little is used at times, such as the nighttime sequences indoors where candlelight or lantern light is used, but also how much light is used at other times where the light is blindingly bright, such as the sequences that include the lighthouse light.

Caption: Robert Pattinson at the Berlinale 2017
Photo by Maximilian Bühn via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

As for the set design, from the moment where Pattinson’s character explores the lighthouse cabin and the lighthouse tower, it all feels oddly alien and cramped. As the film goes on it goes from cramped and alien to claustrophobic and otherworldly, if that makes sense to you readers.

As for the acting, both lead stars do an exceptional job! Dafoe and Pattinson present stunning performances of two men absolutely losing their minds from being isolated for weeks, or possibly something else. Special credit must be given to Pattinson, who has proven he is a competent actor and deserves to be recognized as such.

As with any horror film, the question that will be raised is: is the film scary? The answer is yes, but not in the way we may have come to expect. There are no jump scares in this film, save for one. The real terror is the nature of gothic horror, with elements of Lovecraftian horror that are exuded by the diegesis, and especially in the ending. What is important about the horror is that rarely is anything explained. Is any of what happens real? Did Wake and Winslow just go mad from the isolation? Was there a curse on the mermaid fetish that Winslow found in his bunk? Was there an “enchantment” in the lighthouse-light? Perhaps the beauty of the film lies in the mystery, because true horror, in some ways, shouldn’t be explained.

Kelly Baker is a fourth-year student majoring in English with minors in journalism and film criticism.

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