Robert Eggers burst onto the filmmaking scene with his horror film The Witch (2015), which showed an incredible restraint and immersion of setting. The Sundance Best Director winner, has brought his follow up: The Lighthouse (2019), which takes on a less “horror” tone and delves into aspects of the human psyche and the pit of insanity.
The Lighthouse is set in 1890 on a rocky island off the coast of Maine. There are only two characters in the film, which are dropped off on said island to care for the lighthouse there. There is the veteran Thomas Wade (Willem Dafoe), who won’t let anyone look into the light of the titular building, and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a young man seeming to run away from something. The two men cohabit for a few weeks, but the solitude they feel soon begins to tear away at their sanity.
The film could be interpreted in a milieu of different ways, and is largely similar to The Witch in that respect; which prompted much discussion about the ending’s meaning. The Lighthouse, however, invites theories from the first scene. There is an obvious analysis of the meltdown into insanity, but elements of the film seem to indicate to something more. The film is framed in a near square ratio, likening it to the types of films that would be shown circa 1900. The film is also in black-and-white and using grainy 35-millimeter film instead of the clear cut digital stock in most films today. This lends an ancient and constrained feeling to the story, even though such old technicalities juxtapose with tracking shots and pans that would have seen unusual in such early films. These detailed elements go over the heads of most viewers, and yet indicate to the great attention to every decisive detail that Eggers has gone into crafting his message and atmosphere. This leads one to stop taking the film literally and starts connecting dots to certain dropped mythology or biblical references. For my own personal theories, I find that there are a variety of interpretations that could all be happening at the same time, from a form of purgatory, to an imaginary illusion inside one’s head, to even a view into a corrupt male mind: full of sexual urges, competitiveness, and addiction.
In the end, however, the triumph and enjoyment of the film is not so much in the pinning of an actual meaning or theme, since the film never blatantly gives you one. Instead, the cinematic aspects should be triumphed and lauded for their own individual achievements. Eggers is able to capture the claustrophobia that slowly begins to creep on the characters with the same pause and relish that occurred in the unexplored woods of The Witch. The two performers are incredible, with Dafoe incarnating a figure that keeps one guessing as to his intentions and reality. Pattinson himself is impressive (as all his post-Twilight work has been) in his unleashed descent into insanity that has pushed him into the limits of his own acting abilities. Both actors battling and throwing tension at one another keep the film and viewers taught in anticipation and worry.
That said there was one bothersome cumbrance; it being the use of old English along with heavy New England accents, and the grumbling tones of the sailor-like characters. This phonetical choice caused much of the dialogue to be lost as viewers strained to hear a speech; however, this might have been an intentional choice from Eggers to further alienate viewers and throw them into confusion. Either way, I felt I was losing out on a well-written script and practiced delivery, and it seemed a shame that way. In a further viewing, I would thus heavily recommend putting on subtitles.
Nevertheless, The Lighthouse proves to be a truly unique film, coming from the bold mind of Eggers, who is showing to be a true auteur. The expert crafting and attention to detail, along with the fabulous performances from the two actors are enough to lure you into this fascinating and scintillating tale of… well the “of” you’ll have to decide for yourself.