Director and co-writer Robert Eggers said, “Nothing good happens when two men are trapped in a giant phallus.”
“The Lighthouse” is set in the 1890s and has only two characters. Robert Pattinson is Ephraim Winslow, a former lumberjack who left his life behind to become a lighthouse keeper. On this remote New England island, Ephraim starts to work for Thomas Wake, played by Willem Dafoe. Over the course of “five weeks or two days,” these two men lose their grip on time, reality and themselves.
It is a miracle that this movie was made in this age of filmmaking. Last week Martin Scorcese penned an op-ed about how Marvel movies are not cinema, just theme park rides. His central argument was that there is no risk in those big tentpole movies.
“The Lighthouse” is a massive risk.
Would you want to watch an hour and 50 minutes of two guys, speaking in a period-accurate dialect that is barely comprehensible, all while they lose their minds? You should, because it is darkly comedic in spots, disturbing at times and constantly engrossing.
Every aspect of the filmmaking contributes to conjuring up this lost world, including how the film was shot. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shot with black and white 35mm film stock, which is very resistant to light. You will find yourself leaning forward in your seats to pick up on any detail that is in the background.
The cinematography would mean nothing if the world in front of the camera isn’t fully realized and if your production design is covered by Architectural Digest, you have crossed over. Starting from scratch in Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia, production designer Craig Lathrop and his crew built a 70-foot-tall lighthouse tower. This allowed the camera to move throughout this physical space and add a sense of realism to the location.
The musical score by Mark Korvan is equally difficult to pin down. It would be very difficult to transcribe it onto paper. The opening notes come from far away and waver—refusing to commit to a pitch—that floats just under the surface of the sound of crashing waves.
To set the photography apart from everything even further, it is not in the standard rectangular 16:9 aspect ratio. The very boxy 1.19:1 ratio constricts the closeups on the actors’ faces with very little room around them. It is a great way of constricting the frame and getting close to these incredible performers.
Speaking of which, Pattinson and Dafoe bring career bests here. There are multiple scenes in which both give two-page monologues or rants and the camera never cuts away because their energy is addictive. Their diction may be lost on modern audiences but the performances cut through and you know exactly how they feel.
Pattison and Dafoe have great chemistry as well. One scene requires them to bounce between violent hostility and gentle intimacy like a ping pong match and they make it look effortless.
Like all great movies, you will take from it what you bring into it.
There are so many different interpretations and readings of this story. Robert Eggers cited Ingmar Bergman’s films as inspiration and the central relationship in “The Lighthouse” ends up sharing some strands with Bergman’s “Persona” and how identities can be scrambled in isolation. It can also be read as a meditation on toxic masculinity with the way each struggle for control.
There are a lot of religious references with name-dropping Poseidon, deifying the light in the lighthouse and visual references to the story of Prometheus. No matter how you read it, it is still engaging and something to be talked about long after the credits are done.
It is a miracle that “The Lighthouse” is getting played anywhere outside of the major cities, and is something that needs to be experienced in a theater. We need to keep supporting these insane movies so Hollywood can keep generating original content.