What happens when you leave two sailors stranded on lighthouse duty for months, all while bad weather and isolation sets in? The answer is madness!
Following up the horror masterpiece that was The VVitch, Robert Eggers returned with another tale of insurmountable tension. Not only does it live up to the critical hype in terms of story and theme, but as a technical piece of filmmaking, it remains unlike anything we’ve seen in a long time!
4 Weeks of Misery
Our story begins with two sailors, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) beginning their 4 week rotation manning the lighthouse. We quickly get the sense that these two would much rather be out at sea, and that lighthouse duty is seen more as a chore.
However Thomas (the far more experienced sailor) takes much better to it than Ephraim does. Initially, the two of them don’t seem to get along. Thomas is upbeat and jovial, while also taking their work very seriously, while Ephraim would simply rather be anywhere else. His misery comes out in an overall moodiness that slowly turns to insanity.
With the passage of time, the weather gets worse, Ephraim’s work becomes more unbearable, and his perception of reality begins to blur. The film does an excellent job of making the audience feel like, we too, can’t be sure what’s real and what isn’t.
Between the black and white visuals, and the constant foghorn blaring, it’s easy to see why Ephraim would begin to lose his mind and hallucinate things like mermaids, severed heads, and Lovecraftian squid-creatures.
Even by the end of the film we’re still not completely certain. IMDB lists “Fantasy” as one of The Lighthouse’s subgenres, but we can’t even really trust that, as for well we know, this all occurred
Attention to Detail
Much like with The VVitch, Eggers shines most in his attention to detail that would rival that of Stanley Kubrick. Given the film’s 1890 setting, he insisted on shooting on 35mm black and white film, as well as utilizing mono audio mixing. Even the actors’ accents were the subjects of intense research to get them just right.
At first Dafoe sounds like the cliché we would all think of when imagining an old sailor, but his vocal inflections are accurate to what many Atlantic fisherman spoke like at the time, per Eggers intense research.
Both Dafoe and Pattinson speak in almost entirely different dialects, but we must remember this was a time when regional accents were stronger, and two people from different parts of the same country could sound like they came from different continents.
While Pattinson struggles with his accent a few times here and there, Dafoe seems so natural in his it’s quite uncanny. It wouldn’t be that farfetched to believe he actually travelled back and time and became a sailor in the late 1800’s. But overall, both actors give it their all, even reporting that they were physically and mentally exhausted after each day of filming, and we can clearly see why.
Method to the Madness
Part of what made Eggers’ earlier film so compelling was that it didn’t solely deal with the supernatural threat of a witch. The social oppression caused by religious extremism was just as disturbing. And The Lighthouse is no different. Beneath the horror film veil of two sailors slowly going mad, we have a fascinating study in the dynamics of masculinity, dominance, and conflict between generations.
The modern perceived conflict between baby boomers and millennials is absolutely nothing new. There are even stories from Ancient Greece of older philosophers having a disdain for the younger generation and how they did things differently. The same concept is explored here as Thomas has a strong sense of earned entitlement, which doesn’t bode well with Ephraim’s disdain for authority.
Thomas often berates his subordinate for even questioning his judgement, and takes an obsessive possession of the lighthouse itself, forbidding Ephraim from even coming to the very top. In addition to the overwhelming sense of isolation, it is this constant flexing of authority for its own sake that further facilitates Ephraim’s journey into insanity.
All of this culminates together into a brilliant piece of cinema with superb performances, unimaginable tension, and ideas/themes that will haunt its audience for weeks after seeing it!