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Robert Eggers’ maelstrom of madness

The Lighthouse: psychological terror with hints of the supernatural

The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse (15)
Running time 1hr 49min
Rating: *****

Two lighthouse keepers try to maintain their sanity while living on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s.
2019’s The Lighthouse has a unique mixture of psychological terror with hints of the supernatural. Review by CAMERON BLACKSHAW

2019 was a great year for film. Standouts include Bong Joon-Ho’s Best Picture-winning South Korean social commentary comedy-thriller Parasite, as well as Joaquin Phoenix’s riveting portrayal of Batman’s infamous cackling nemesis in Joker, and Greta Gerwig’s fresh and delightful adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved 19th-century novel Little Women. But no movie was more mysterious and mind-bending than Robert Egger’s maelstrom of a second feature, The Lighthouse.

To put it simply, it’s an astonishing film. The Lighthouse follows two men who both drunkenly descend into madness as they attempt to work and co-exist within a lighthouse on a small rocky island far away from any semblance of civilisation.
The film begins with Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a young and brooding timber worker who seeks a change in employment and arrives at the island with Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), an experienced wickie and Winslow’s boss. In his unforgettable speech and use of language, Wake is a true salty sea dog, and the pair are consistently mismatched in their age, beliefs and desires, further aggravating the friction that fuels their tumultuous relationship.

Winslow is ordered by Wake to undertake numerous laboured tasks such as lugging around heavy kerosene canisters, shovelling coal and emptying both of their chamber pots in the nearby ocean, all while Wake locks himself up at the top of the lighthouse tower, somewhere Winslow is forbidden to go. Winslow often sees Wake naked in front of light, drawn to its strange erotic power, which stokes Winslow’s own sexual wishes. As the days and weeks turn into months, Winslow begins to rebel against Wake’s position of power while at the same time becoming closer to his bizarre mentor, and as both men realise they are stranded, their attempts to hold on to their sanity is hindered by their violent alcoholism and nautical visions of mermaids and sea creatures.

It’s not an easy film to explain, nor even to watch. The runtime doesn’t even go over two hours, but just like it happens with the characters, the film completely messes with your perception of time. It feels like an age until the credits begin to roll, and that you’re trapped on the rocks just like Winslow and Wake. It’s a beautiful nightmare that you’re unsure if you’re enjoying or hating, but that’s the great power of it. Eggers’ wonderful script, his idiosyncratic and fresh direction, and Jarin Blaschke’s superb Oscar-nominated cinematography make The Lighthouse an endlessly intriguing thrill ride that’ll keep you pondering and leave you itching to revisit it again.

The most striking part of the film is the way it’s shot. Black and white and with an almost square aspect ratio, the grainy camerawork is a perfect window into Eggers’ detailed world. The squareness of the frame exaggerates the claustrophobic nature of the lighthouse interiors that both characters are contained within, and the interiors themselves feel lived in and believable. Eggers used to be a production designer, so it makes sense that the crew would build the lighthouse from scratch, a fact that is commendable for both the effort and the astounding result.

The monochrome nature of the colour palette is without a doubt an enormous strength. Imagining The Lighthouse with full colour just seems ridiculous. The play of light and shadow that Eggers manages to create (particularly on the faces of his actors) is breathtaking. It’s a really beautiful looking film, full of memorable and striking imagery (much of which was taken from symbolist artists Sascha Schneider and Jean Delville) that will haunt your inner eye for months on end.

The Lighthouse is without a doubt a showcase of a director in his prime exercising his unique vision in an effective way, but if it wasn’t for the masterful performances by Dafoe and Pattinson, the film would be another thing entirely. Pattinson plays Winslow with repressed emotion and bursting physicality that is really electric. It’s not as flashy a role as Dafoe’s, but he plays it with just as much gusto and flair. Dafoe as Wake has to be one of my favourite all-time supporting performances. Dafoe completely transforms himself into this utterly believable maritime parody that is funny, scary and sympathetic all at once. His delivery of the period dialogue is exquisite, and many of his biggest scenes are the most memorable of the film.

Dealing with themes of identity, alcoholism, isolation and homoeroticism just to name a few, The Lighthouse has more than enough substance to its signature style. To me, it’s comparable to horror masterpieces such as Kubrick’s The Shining, but to box both films into the neat generic package of horror would be a disservice. Their unique mixture of psychological terror with hints of the supernatural is a hallmark many films attempt to live up to, but most come nowhere near. It’s truly effective cinema in all its aspects that only gets better the more you see it and the more you think about it.

The Lighthouse is available on Amazon Prime

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