by Ken Bakely
An admirably strange movie like Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse works best when it occupies a fully committed position and mindset; in this case, Eggers offers us a bracing and disquieting journey through the devolving stability of two men in solitude, manning a lighthouse in New England in the 1890s. Framed in dusty, black-and-white imagery in a nearly square aspect ratio, Eggers, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, envelop us in the film’s haunting world, by turns rugged and grotesque, gruff and surreal. It’s the strength of this exercise in mood and tone that emphasizes the single-mindedness of its components and works, even when the movie goes to such lengths that it almost feels hard to connect everything together. We’re absorbed into the events by how effortlessly developed they seem to be, learn to adapt to even the most unusual of structural rhythms and story developments, and are then thrown into the deep by what follows. Eggers’s first film, The Witch, was another period horror film devoted as much attention to the details of the daily lives and interplay of its characters as it did to building the fantastical fears that soon disrupt them. Such effects are replicated here, again to greatly unnerving effect. As the proceedings unfold almost exclusively through the two aforementioned, increasingly at-odds characters – the older, seasoned, secretive, and more outwardly eccentric Thomas (Willem Dafoe), and the younger Ephraim (Robert Pattinson) – a feeling of claustrophobia cloisters us into the deeply uncomfortable settings. The remote and storm-battered island that the lighthouse is located on seems smaller by the second.
Since virtually all of The Lighthouse is a two-hander – with the exception being hallucinations had by Ephraim which often center around a mermaid (Valeriia Karamä) – we are offered the chance to see how the mysteries surrounding each character come to light in unexpected ways. The power dynamics between them seem clear at first, with the older man directing the younger, but as much of the film is dedicated to examining how their slipping grasp on reality, brought upon by their isolation, the semblance of structure and order eventually go by the wayside. Eggers ends the film in a completely different place than where one might have suspected him to go from the start, but despite the slew of elusive imagery and sudden changes in circumstances that follow the plot, we’re rarely at a loss to understand how everything follows. In another sense, however, the confusion is part of the point. This is so much a work about how these people are driven to their ends and then far beyond them, that it only makes sense that shots would be drenched in darkness, that thick sheets of rain would obscure an ability to see or hear outside the immediate surroundings, and that there would be sequences and moments that are left to the grim realms of the unknown and unknowable. All we can see, from the outset, is how these feelings are manifest in physical actions, and examining how the characters move between the internal minds of a character and the external, corporeal realities, is where Eggers draws much of the fear and tension of the piece.
Yet, though this is an experience about the unraveling of these characters, and placed in such a horrifying headspace, it’s still done with this sly and bleak sense of humor about the absurdities of it all. The extremes to which the characters eventually go in their desperation are anchored by pedestrian squabbles they have about the other’s bad habits or poor hygiene. Being able to not only balance all of this, but present it as multiple sides of the same effect, is a testament to Eggers’s incredible sense of control, and it is to the credit of the two actors that their characters’ relationship can be as intensely confrontational as it is undeniably bonded. The Lighthouse goes to dark and tense places as quickly as it starts, but does so through a wandering, twisting path in which things are surprising and unpredictable. It’s as silly as it is scary, and it’s very scary. And interestingly enough, it’s only when the film makes dark, fantastical leaps into haunted psyches that sensations of gripping confinement grow the most frenzied. This makes it an entertainment of a particularly singular and perverse kind, as the characters’ frenzied states both shock and enthrall us, thanks to the dedication exerted by the actors and Eggers’s madcap vision, which he realizes with a marvelous command.