Nestled between dramatic period piece, supernatural horror and bizarre fantasy lies a strange pocket of reality where The Lighthouse takes place, and it results in not only one of the most interesting films of the year, but easily the best one of the year so far, and the best in the past couple of years.
The Lighthouse is a hypnotic experience, and quite possibly the most effective Lovecraftian film ever made. Before delving into too many elements which could spoil a first viewing, it needs to be said that this is a film that is best experienced knowing as little as possible. Then, once you’ve seen it, you can go back a few days later to see it again, as a second viewing is crucial to fully grasp what this film is doing. Combine this film with director Robert Eggers’ first film, The Witch (aka The VVitch) and you have a clear portrait of a filmmaker who does no shy away from presenting the audience with something challenging. There are many elements of the film which contribute to its challenge with the most obvious one being the dialogue. Set in a lighthouse far off of Maine during the early 1900’s, the dialogue and mannerisms of the two characters can be difficult to decipher- especially everything that Willem Dafoe’s character, Thomas Wake, says, as his colorful word choice is old fashioned even for the world of the film. Prior to writing this, I indulged in a second viewing with one of the primary goals of understanding as much of his dialogue as humanly possible without subtitles or taking notes.
The other major feature of the film which props ups its challenge to the audience is the nature of the narrator, and how incredibly unreliable he is. While not a narrator in the official capacity, we experience the film from the perspective of Robert Pattinson’s character, Ephraim Winslow, thus placing his interpretation and perception of the events as our only record of them. Of course, as the trailer implies, the characters begin to lose their minds, or at least that is the case for Winslow. The result is that it forces us to question every single frame in the film, and do our best to figure out what was actually real.
This is not aided by Wake, as his seemingly duplicitous nature further clouds our perception of the film. Is he actually misleading or lying to Winslow, or are those mistruths a product of the latter’s madness? Obfuscating our perception of the film further is a complete inability to perceive the passage of time. There are almost no transitions in the film, as each scene hard cuts to the next with no way of telling how much time has passed: a few hours, a few days, who knows? This is made even worse when Winslow is sure of how much time has gone by on the rock, only for Wake to tell him that they have in fact been there weeks longer. Without any means to know the truth whether it comes to what the characters are saying, or even what day it is and how long they have been there, we are left to do our best to figure things out, just as Winslow must as our untrustworthy shepherd through this strange reality
This are some of the many questions a viewer will be asking themselves once the film ends, and it does have an effect of compromising the initial impact of the film. There is no punchy conclusion, or easy to digest meaning from the film, so the lingering sensation is one of that more closely emulates a high school English exam than what would be expected from a film of this caliber.
Prior to arriving to the brain-busting conclusion, the film is unquestionably excellent. The cinematography is magnificent and out noirs even the best films of American noir. The whites in this film are blinding and lurid, and blacks are impossibly dark and equally as impenetrable. These rich and dramatic blacks and whites are the color pallet for some of the finest cinematography of the past several years. The intricate and overwhelming shadows dance across the actors faces and often distort them into looking like inhuman and monstrous. All of this visual decadence is crammed into a 1×1.19 aspect ratio- tiny and quaint by modern standards. The nearly perfect square requires theatrical staging and blocking of the scene which contributes to the almost storybook, or fantastical nature of the film. Finally sprinkle in flashes of the supernatural- of tentacles and creatures dredging themselves up from the sea, and you have an unrivaled visual experience.
Watching two men get repeatedly plastered has never been so distressing.
Inhabiting this world of spectacular white, infinite blacks and the smattering of grays are our two aforementioned characters, and their portrayals are both superb. This film is one of two men falling deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of depravity. Ephraim Winslow in particular is wrought with this, as the originally sober man stumbles and trips his way through the film once he indulges in the drink. His decreased levels of self-control both contribute to and are a direct result of his increasing madness. From the very outset of the film, his reliability is compromised, as he has a sort of vision or nightmare his first night on that rock.
Thomas Wake, meanwhile, is a cantankerous old sea-dog. His authentic speech nearly requires a dictionary and a translator which leads to the film’s overall challenge, but also to a potential lack of clarity. Throughout the film, Wake regales Winslow with tall tales, legends and myths of sailors, and he repeatedly warns Winslow of the actions on the rock which lead to bad luck. He compounds these sailor’s legends with maniacal tirades and diatribes in which he threatens the entire wrath of the sea towards Winslow for not liking his cooking.
These monologues are vast and dramatic, and of course littered with older phrases and words which will be largely unfamiliar for the audience, though they are some of the most important moments in the film, as they are proof of the film actually is. Every tall tale and nautical threat which Wake relays to Winslow comes true. From the bad luck brought about by killing a sea bird, to his Promethean fate is predicted by Wake. His nautical folklore and sailor’s legends could only be true within the reality of the film if the film itself is one of those legends. The Lighthouse is itself one of those legends and tales that Thomas Wake recites and in some ways worships throughout the film. The reality of the film gives way for the mythical and the supernatural more and more as it goes, all of which is predicted and told to the audience by Wake as long as we pay keen attention to his words.
What we are left with once the credits role is one of the most interesting, engaging, challenging and best films of the year. The Lighthouse is some of modern filmmaking at its finest, and there are not going to be many examples of a film with finer acting or cinematography this year. A challenging film gives way to an unforgettable experience for those willing to take the plunge.