THE LIGHTHOUSE oozes creepiness often and grimness all of the time. Even the seagulls are intrusive and ominous in this intentionally claustrophobic art house horror movie. It harkened me back to watching black and white Ingmar Bergman films in years past. Well, that plus what it may have been like if Mr. Bergman had produced something while on steady dosages of LSD and liquor after having had a few influential exchanges with, say, a young David Lynch. While not exactly fun to watch, I was visually intrigued by the cinematography and impressed with the acting by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe.
THE LIGHTHOUSE grows more hallucinatory as it progresses, largely shown from the perspective of actor Robert Pattinson’s character, young laborer Ephraim Winslow. Set in the 1890s on a small, stark island with a lighthouse, Winslow battles his guilty conscience, loneliness, and the cantankerous, manipulative aging lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Dafoe). As days pass and an ocean storm builds around them, the two men fall into increasingly raw, primal interactions with each other and their surroundings, akin to that in William Golding’s LORD OF THE FLIES, but often more bizarre. Heavy imbibing of liquor (and, eventually, kerosene mixed with honey) plays a part in all this.
The script was partly inspired by writer Herman Melville’s work and is sprinkled with passages written by men who toiled on the high seas in the 19th century. I appreciated the mythological, Pagan folk elements throughout the film, such as a recurring, eery siren-mermaid (Valeriia Karaman) and references to ancient Greek sea deities Proteus, Triton, and Poseidon. Director and co-writer Robert Eggers does not shy away from the supernatural, cleverly threading it into the psychological, skillfully conveyed through Wake’s superstitiousness and Winslow’s increasing mental instability.
While comparisons of the tumultuous ocean and the often troubled human psyche have been written about and filmed time and again, THE LIGHTHOUSE does so with originality, thanks to the genius writing of Max and Robert Eggers, the latter who also brilliantly directs. The camerawork involves a blending of old techniques from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the screen aspect ratio an almost perfect square. We viewers are quickly led to feel boxed in as Wake and Winslow do. Initially, I could not quite always decipher what I was seeing on the screen, the landscape being filled with shadows among so much gray. On reflection, I think I was adjusting to Winslow’s dreary surroundings right along with him, the ocean and clouds often adding to the murkiness. From out of Winslow’s murky mind of memories, fears, and desires arise images, the ocean a perfect medium/reflecting pool for them. Or maybe the siren-mermaid is actually there? After all, the fearless, mysterious seagulls are real. Like Winslow, I sometimes briefly felt uncertain about what was supposed to be hallucination or dream vs. physical reality.
I do think THE LIGHTHOUSE will become a classic, joining the ranks of other cinematic masterpieces with a pared-down aesthetic to underscore existential angst and the human condition. Amidst the plethora of visual excess and distractions these days, sometimes it’s refreshing to watch a thoughtful, paradoxically stark yet full movie such as this, if only to remember I have a lot to be grateful for in my precious but ephemeral existence.