The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers‘ second feature film (the first being the outstanding The Witch), is not going to appeal to all palates. While The Witch was an unusual film in that it combined rigorous historical research with the fantastical while playing with psychology and abstraction, it was still mesmerizing to watch and established its pioneer family and wilderness setting securely before veering into uncertain territory. The Lighthouse, on the other hand, starts with two wickies (lighthouse keepers) arriving at their assignment on a fog shrouded boat. From the get go, the images are slathered in a dense fog as if to say we’re being thrown into the deep end of this story without much of a lifeline.
Another key difference, if you haven’t seen the intense trailer where the two main characters basically yell at each other punctuated by urgent fog horn noises, is that the film is shot in black and white in a 4:3 ratio. The Witch was shot in glorious, supple colour. The black and white and 4:3 ratio of this film is reminiscent of older European art films and I kept thinking of those Ingmar Bergman films in particular, shot by cinematographer Sven Nykvist, filmed on the desolate island of Faro. The Lighthouse features our two wickies, one old (played with irascible vigour by Willem Dafoe) and one young (played with an ultimate and terse dedication by Robert Pattinson), isolated on an island, grappling with each other and the ravages of madness. They have names but the names are misleading so there’s little point in discussing them – at one point, they both seem to be ‘Thomases’ so make of that what you will – one interpretation could be that they’re two different versions of the same person locked in internal struggle.
Pattinson’s character is the protagonist, Dafoe is the antagonist. Both are wholly committed to their roles. Dafoe is a bully and tyrant, often drunk, insisting on regaling Pattinson with overblown stories of his seafaring years, and relegating all the difficult and laborious tasks to Pattinson while Dafoe enjoys the ease of manning the light. Dafoe is so protective of the light that he won’t allow Pattinson to climb up and see it; an early moment seems to suggest that Dafoe strips down naked and basks in the glow of the light, entranced and in love with it, while drunk. Meanwhile, Pattinson begrudgingly bears his lot, lifting and cleaning endless heavy objects, emptying the chamber pots, struggling with the seagulls that harass him, generally slaving under Dafoe’s watch. Dafoe is not a very charitable partner or supervisor. They chafe against each other but finish their four weeks and wait for their supervisor to relieve them. He never comes. Instead, they are hit by a storm which rages for days, perhaps brought on when Pattinson kills a seagull against Dafoe’s decrees.
Then all hell breaks loose and exacerbated by alcohol, the two men’s lives become a medley of frustration, fighting, drinking, dancing, jeering, and all-out violence. It’s hard not to draw comparisons to Eggers’ first film. As in The Witch, claustrophobia, tension, and intense personalities contribute to a psychological mood that may simply be a product of warped imaginations or on the other hand, might overlap with the supernatural. While it was a New England witch and Devil worship in the first film, it’s mermaids and Greek mythology in this one. At times, Dafoe is pictured as some kind of Triton figure, a mythical tyrant of the sea. Evidence of his crimes wash up on shore though they may only be figments of Pattinson’s deranged mind. A striking mermaid also washes up on the shore, complete with straggling seaweed, fish-like biology, and emitting sharp cries like a bird. Pattinson’s already been masturbating to a small crude figurine of a mermaid that he found, so having sex with the mermaid (and regretting it later) is inevitable. It’s hard not to see Pattinson as a Prometheus figure, chafing against the raging Zeus-like Dafoe, and the light atop the tower as some sort of mystical flame that casts Pattinson down for daring to steal a glance. Indeed, Pattinson ends the film as a naked body upon the rocks being pecked at by seagulls (as opposed to the vultures that ate Prometheus’ liver).
Perhaps the black and white Bergman film set on the island of Faro that my mind instantly made a connection to was Persona. In that film, two women (one inexperienced and the other weary of the world) are isolated in a summer home. Over the course of the film, they engage in a dance of revelation, challenge, dream, and an odd kind of fluidity where the boundaries of personality and identity are lost, merging into each other. The ‘sanity’ of the film gives way to an unstable psychological state that is impossible to analyze or define. However, that film possesses chic steely calm, interrupted by confrontations and confessions, whereas The Lighthouse just full on rages from start to finish. Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf also comes to mind.
The cinematography is great, using foggy textures and deep shadows to layer on its psychological tones. More importantly, the use of weather and dream in such great measure and effectiveness signal how dedicated Eggers is to his craft. The costumes, speech, look, and focused setting all speak to a filmmaker completely consumed with his projects and the elements that go into them. The zest and fury seem to have rubbed off on the actors because they also give every inch of their souls to the project. Dafoe has always been a remarkable talent (this performance rivals his recent Van Gogh role in terms of immersion) but it’s also nice to see Pattinson reaching for these obscure, non-glorifying roles. Though he’s been in a couple of other films since then, the last thing I saw him in was The Lost City of Z where he plays the alcoholic but reliable Corporal Henry Costin, having no problem taking a role that fades into the background of the movie. Instead of coveting star vehicles, he seems to take on roles for the sake of the films he’s in, and The Lighthouse is not an easy or dazzling project for a star to carry.
Like I say, this film will not be for everyone. But for those of us who are newly converted to the burgeoning film career of the singular and dedicated Robert Eggers, it is essential viewing.