The Lighthouse review: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe are caught between the devil and the deep sea
The Witch director Robert Eggers' second film, The Lighthouse, was unquestionably one of the hot-ticket events at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
A fog horn blares in cadence as the percussive white-capped waves of a dark grey sea hurl themselves against the reeling bow of a ship. On board are two men — a veteran seafarer and his apprentice — on a four week-long lighthouse keeping mission. Fighting through the angry waters wave by wave across the misty horizon, the ship approaches the remote shore of a small, rocky island on top of which sits said lighthouse. The two men disembark on this forbidding island, which is deluged with the most hostile of winds, swarming with the most obnoxious of seagulls and shrouded in the most mysterious of myths.
Thus begins The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers' black-and-white follow-up to his debut feature, The Witch. His breakout hit was a creepy-as-hell Puritan nightmare — a 17th century-set horror story harkening back to the era of witch trials and pagan folklore — which cast a spell on festival-goers at Sundance 2015 (with Eggers even clinching the Best Director award in the US Dramatic competition). With The Lighthouse, he has now taken the French Riviera by storm.
Diving into the heady waters of late 19th-century Maine for a nautical psychodrama, Eggers' latest was unquestionably one of the hot-ticket events at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Though Eggers has helmed just two films so far, he has already proved himself to be a master of atmospheric dramas, skilfully adding a sense of slow-building dread and maddening isolation to the dark, oppressive environments of period settings.
Moving from the 1630s to the 1890s, Eggers' new film follows the gravelly, grizzly-bearded Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe ranting like Captain Ahab, cursing like Haddock and wrangling like Bluto), and his younger, more guarded assistant Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson transforming from a regular Daniel LaRusso into a maritime Jack Torrance) — the two men charged with taking care of a lighthouse on a secluded island.
The despotic boss-disgruntled worker hierarchy is apparent from the onset. Wake wants to run a tight ship and is almost ruthless in the way he treats Winslow, who's still learning the ropes at his new job. Winslow is burdened with tasks that are gruelling (shovelling coal, cleaning the cistern, scrubbing the floorboards) to downright degrading (Word to the wise — Ne'er empty the chamber pots when strong winds a-blowing). His only respite and recreation comes in the form of an ivory figurine of a mermaid, to which he masturbates — frequently, frantically and furiously. Meanwhile, all Wake does is tend the lantern by day, regale himself with drunken tales by night, and provoke Winslow in the time between.
Moreover, Wake denies Winslow access to the top of the tower and thus deprives him of the chief duty and delight their job entails — that of keeping the lantern glowing. He guards the lantern room with a religious fervour as if the task of lighthouse keeping required not just a certain level of seniority but sanctity. The lantern is elevated into a spiritual symbol of light, as though it offered some divine truth. But it is corrupted by Wake's desire to keep this truth to himself and Winslow's curiosity-turned-jealousy. Their quest for this light/truth instead plunges them to the dark depths of hell, as it becomes the catalyst for the climactic conflict.
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The primal violence that often binds men has rarely been evoked as intensely as Dafoe and Pattinson's showcase in The Lighthouse. Their pairing provides a recipe for one unforgettable moment after another as they drink, dance and dispute over everything, from supper to superstitions. Their melancholy and malice is precipitated by a deep sense of isolation and paranoia. So, their relationship eventually becomes so toxic they are not just battling their own demons but also each other. Just as Wake and Winslow test each other’s limits, Dafoe and Pattinson too seem to be pushing the psychological and physical limits of their acting skills.
This is an original work in an antique mood and the two leads enhance the authentic flavour and texture of Eggers' period-specific vernacular. Though these words are hardly easy to remember and recite, they still roll off Dafoe's tongue so effortlessly with an infectious rhythm you often forget his physical performance is equally mesmerising. Pattinson has obviously built himself an admirable résumé in recent years, having already worked with filmmakers like David Cronenberg (Cosmopolis), Werner Herzog (Queen of the Desert), James Gray (The Lost City of Z), Safdie brothers (Good Time) and Claire Denis (High Life). As you watch him deliver a masterfully unhinged and over-the-top performance in The Lighthouse, you realise how far he has come since his Twilight days.
Of course, they're emboldened by the theatrically-minded script. Eggers not only has a keen ear for dialogue but also a sharp eye for visual detail. With Winslow stranded on an island in the middle of a boundless ocean, his fear of isolation, his paranoia about Wake and his suspicion of seagulls cause his mental state to crumble. The line between myth and reality becomes blurred as a variety of nautical lore takes shape. We see his madness manifest with hallucinations of coquettish mermaids and tentacled krakens.
The 1.19:1 aspect ratio not only aids the film's period feel but also forces us to focus our attention on the characters and their internal worlds, rather than their external realities. By boxing us in, Eggers helps establish an intimacy with them, creating a sense of vulnerability as the characters become victims of their unpleasant circumstances. Each composition possesses an other-worldly quality to it and immerses you in such a way you feel like you've fallen victim to cabin fever too, just like Winslow.
Eggers creates this other-worldly effect with black-and-white images that have a greenish tint, like something out of the silent cinema era. The Lighthouse often gives the illusion of watching an old Carl Dreyer or F.W. Murnau film as Eggers uses bursts of light against menacing shadows. The dramatic close-ups on faces of the morally ambiguous characters played by actors in an overtly theatrical manner — all bring to mind the Expressionist cinema of the aforementioned masters of the movement.
Mark Korven's score (with its dramatic swathes of brass) and Damian Volpe’s sound design (mixing deafening sirens with crashing waves, lashing winds and squawking seagulls) further add to the atmosphere of paranoia and dread. Yet, you don't want this relentless madness to ever end.
If The Witch gave us a taste of Eggers' artistry in building atmosphere and flair for adapting folklore, The Lighthouse organically expands on his debut feature’s hypnotic qualities and eerie lyricism. It shows us what genre filmmakers are capable of — if given the freedom to make films without restraint. If Eggers’ first film was bewitchingly good, his second is an absolute delight. One can't wait to see what he serves up next.
The Lighthouse had its world premiere in the Director's Fortnight section at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
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