REVIEW BY DAN HICKEY
Robert Eggers’ latest film “The Lighthouse” seeps into your brain and sits there for days on end. It feels appropriate to write about it in a medicated daze after a fitful night of sleep. When I saw it recently, I was entranced by this beautifully shot black-and-white meditation on camaraderie, isolation, and ultimately madness. I couldn’t definitively say when I first walked out of the film whether I liked it, but it has really stuck with me. I can’t stop thinking about it.
The film opens on choppy waters from the perspective of the men on a small boat moving forwards. The boat arrives on an isolated New England island with two men on a shift to work the lighthouse off the coast of New England. The POV shot looking forward immediately evoked opening images of the central family in Eggers’ debut film “The Witch” leaving their remote village to move even further away from society into the dark woods. Both of Eggers’ films place their central characters at the very ends of the world. Whether driven by financial need, religious freedom, or some other hidden motive they have removed themselves from the community of the time and are isolated. It’s this isolation, both physical and self-imposed, that drives the narrative. “The Witch” centered on a family of seven. “The Lighthouse” reduces the count to two working men getting to know each other for the first time. The woods from the first film have been replaced by the sea in the second film but in both, nature is clearly in control in this world. When Robert Pattinson’s character, Ephraim Winslow, trudges towards his new temporary home (no one truly walks in this film, they always trudge and sometimes stumble and crawl), he pauses and looks at the camera. This shot immediately evoked the amazing old large black-and-white shots I’ve seen from the time period of sailors, lumbermen, and fishermen. The actor holds in place, not completely still, but waiting, reminding us of how people had to stay still for long periods of time for the camera to do its work. People rarely smiled in these pictures and when you examine those old photos you take away the notion that life was hard.
In this world, work is grueling and physically challenging. Ephraim is the junior man and Willem Defoe’s seasoned character Thomas Wake never lets him forget it. He lets Ephraim know early that he was a seaman and he runs this world as if they were on his ship. There are many, many rules to follow and only he is allowed to tend to the light in the lighthouse. The work is unbelievably hard, dangerous, and also monotonous. The movie supposedly takes place in the 1890s but I had a tough time pinning an exact time to the story which helped create that otherworldly feel. Days slip by and nights are the same. Time seems to lose meaning here. Thomas insists that drink is required to help break up the boredom and stave off madness. He warns that he knows others who have lost their mind and their way. His nightly ritual, filled with elaborate toasts and booze, which Ephraim refuses to drink, immediately rubs Ephraim the wrong way. Ephraim compromises by toasting with dirty water but won’t take a drop of liquor. Alcohol, as much as isolation, helps drive the story. In the same way that the lighthouse needs constant fuel as replenishment, so insists Thomas, do the men who tend it. It’s ambiguous as to whose view is the sane one when it comes to imbibing.
The imagery and sound design in this film are astonishing. The island is starkly beautifully but you can feel the danger that surrounds the men in every shot and sound. The creaking ropes that hold Ephraim in place as he hangs perilously suspended in the air painting the lighthouse. The incessant seabirds sharing the island with the men and often trying to assert their dominance. The constant roar of crashing waves smashing into the rocks. The lighthouse itself is both sinister and a beacon of hope. Thomas refuses to allow Ephraim to tend it and this breeds resentment and stirs Ephraim’s imagination to dark places. In a small world, a locked door is too enticing.
The language is lyrical and at times tough to follow. Like the waves and gulls, it lulls you in and you being to follow along to the rhythm even when you might miss the exact words that are spoken. Like “The Witch,” it all feels very authentic and creates another layer of distance and wonder to a modern audience. I loved that the trailers for this film only intrigue you but never gave too much away. I feel it’s even a little spoilery to assign a genre to this film. Both Pattinson and Defoe give their all to their roles and their twisted chemistry is a joy to behold. Pattinson is one of the best young actors working today. If you’re still hung up on picturing him as Edward Cullen in the “Twilight” saga, please do yourself a favor and seek out his work in roles for “High Life,” “The Lost City of Z,” “Map to the Stars,” and especially “Good Time.” He’s choosing to work with phenomenal often quirky directors and creating a catalog of dark interesting broken characters. I’m curious to see what happens in the next stage of his career after he follows these bold acting choices he’s made with a return to pop culture as Bruce Wayne/Batman in the upcoming comic-book adaptation. Then there’s Willem Defoe. Let’s build a statue of this guy. The man can do absolutely no wrong in my book. He chews up the scenery as Thomas and it works. This is a role that finally matches those crazy eyes and distinctive face. Sometimes I caught a whiff of Brando, other times Popeye, and other times his acting was pure Shakespearean in scope. It’s a wild mix. I loved everything about his performance and that protean ability kept me on my toes because I was ready to believe anything about his character. Once Ephraim, finally succumbs and takes his first sip of liquor, the lines all blur; truth and lies, reality and fantasy; madness and sanity. These are two actors going at it verbally and physically and should be required viewing in Movie Acting 101.
“The Lighthouse” had me hooked from the first beautifully composed shot and in the subsequent days since first watching this film, the haunting images of the isolated men and locale keep unexpectedly popping up in my mind. If you’re looking for a straightforward narratively driven film, you can skip this and stay on the mainland. I did see a couple walk out of the theater midway through the film. I can attest that it certainly won’t be for everyone. If you want a story that delves into the darker recesses of your mind and refuses to leave, you should watch this haunting, character-driven tale. If you’re lucky enough to live near a theater that is showing this, please go watch it on the big screen the way it’s meant to be seen.