“The Lighthouse”: A Romp of Madness and Stylistic Flair

 Amid the unending maelstrom of sequels, reboots, and spinoffs that define today’s new releases, watching The Lighthouse feels like a breath of fresh, salty, ocean air. The film requires no lore research, no prequel catch-up, not even an understanding of pop culture references. What you see is what you get: 110 minutes of black-and-white madness, the tale of two men mentally unraveling while trapped on an austere island, tending a lighthouse in a tempestuous storm.

The film, directed by Robert Eggers, opens with Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), a young man new to lighthouse keeping, arriving on an unnamed lighthouse island off the coast of New England during the 1890s. Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) — a wild-eyed, heavily bearded, pipe-smoking former sailor — tends the lighthouse permanently, cycling through partners who succumb to the bleak work. The film is a two-man, one island drama, confined only to Winslow, Wake, and the mysterious power of sea and lighthouse.

Actors Dafoe and Pattinson bring the talkative, boisterous Wake and the mute, anti-social Winslow to kinetic life. The crux of their clash is the light atop the tower itself. 

As the veteran lighthouse keeper, Wake tends the light by night. Why he alone tends the light isn’t always clear. At one point, Wake claims the light drove his last partner to suicide, and that there was a seductive magic to it. At another, we see Wake slumped in the room that encases the light, staring into its sparkling crystal encasement, as if he is entranced. Tension builds as Winslow attempts to discover what Wake is hiding. Pattinson and Dafoe shine in this conflict, their game of cat-and-mouse continually shifting. At points, it’s unclear if they are friends or enemies, or if neither — or both — are deceiving the other.

The unfolding drama between the two — not necessarily where it leads — is the crux of the excitement of watching The Lighthouse. The film keeps the audience engaged by forcing them to guess at the truth. The viewer wonders, “Who’s deceiving who? Is Winslow imagining the sinister images that disturb his stay on the island? Which one of them is going mad?” Prepare yourself for continual disorientation because The Lighthouse gets unnervingly, phantasmagorically weird.

The film sits comfortably under the psychological horror umbrella, but it’s also a period piece — which works to its advantage. Eggers uses stylistic elements that evoke the feeling of the 1890s in a creative way that combines the new with the old. The sound design and Mark Korven’s score are a great example of this use of historical references. Droning woodwinds; shifty, distant horns; and even an occasional accordion subvert contemporary viewer’s expectation of a typical modern score. Korven’s work, coupled with the ominous, metronomic rumble of a foghorn creates an immersive soundscape that heightens the film’s claustrophobic atmosphere.

Even more impressive is Director of Photography Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography. The constraints of the film — one setting, no color, two actors — again work in its favor. Eggers and Blaschke shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, aka the “Movietone” ratio, which came into use during the 1920s. Even if this jargon sounds unfamiliar, the grainy, boxy effect of the format references an older style of film that all viewers will recognize. However, it’s the use of shadows that steal the show. A recurring visual motif involves Winslow peering up from the bottom of the stairs at Wake, who is bathed in light at the top. The way Blaschke plays shadows off Pattinson’s face, emphasizing his eyes, adds a truly spooky dimension to his performance.

If The Lighthouse has a flaw, and it would be a minor one, it’s the editing. For about thirty minutes, the film sits with Winslow and Wake as they size each other up, establishing the layout of the island and lighthouse in the process. It drags ever so slightly — but not as much as the rest of the film. Though we’re treated to electric acting throughout the film, the madness of the second half feels a touch drawn out. Eggers and editor Louise Ford could’ve left another 10 minutes on the cutting room floor, preferably taken from one of the multiple scenes where Wake gaslights Winslow. No one scene drags but, taken together in a steam that lasts most of the film, each is somewhat diluted.

Aside from that, The Lighthouse excels. It’s mercurial and hair-raising, but most of all, it’s a romp. The seamless blending of sound design, cinematography, and acting represent one of the most remarkable feats of filmmaking in recent memory. Go see The Lighthouse and fall into its chaos. Movies this strange and fun don’t come around often.