I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years talking about a trend of elevated horror movies. Granted, calling this a trend is a little nebulous as the movies don’t have that much in common aside from being horror movies that are more artisitic than what Hollywood makes and there’s no real evidence that they’re really influencing one another, but they’ve become part of the film discourse just the same. 2019 is in many ways the year where the whole “movement” really pays off because we’ve gotten follow-up films from most of the directors that have defined it. We’ve gotten new films from the directors of The Babadook (Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale), Hereditary (Ari Astor’s Midsommar), It Follows (David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake), and It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults’s upcoming Waves). Some of these follow-ups were really solid and suggested more good things to come, some suggested that their filmmakers maybe weren’t as good as their debuts promised. Some suggested a doubling down on horror as their filmmaker’s genre of choice, and some didn’t. But the film that I’ve personally been waiting on the most was The Lighthouse, the sophomore effort of Robert Eggers, director of the amazing 2015 film The Witch which is probably the very best of all of them.
After the release of The Witch there were rumors that Eggers was working on some sort of new version of Nosferatu and I’m not sure if he’s still working on that or not but clearly he transitioned into making another film that harkens back to the early days of cinema called The Lighthouse. That film is set in an unclear time and place but it appears to be at an island somewhere in the vicinity of New England at some point in the late 19th or early 20th century. On that island is a tall lighthouse along with some lodgings and a little bit of space. As the film begins a man named Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is boated over to this island having gotten a four week contract to act as a worker at the lighthouse which is otherwise overseen by an old former sailor Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Wake proves to be a rather bossy and uncompromising man with a strange habit of going up to the top of the lighthouse and bathing in its light. Winslow also proves not to be a prime example of mental health either as he’s having odd visions of mermaids and other nautical horrors and soon after arriving starts to think that the island’s seagulls are stalking him. Over the course of these four plus weeks of work the two start to antagonize each other and a deranged war of wills commences.
The Lighthouse was shot in black and white and in 1.19:1, which is a very narrow aspect ratio associated with the very earliest days of sound filmmaking. These choices seem to have been made partly to give the film a certain sense of unreality. You could say that this gives the film a certain dream/nightmare quality, I’d even compare it to Eraserhead to some extent but it doesn’t get completely weird right away. I think there also might be something to be said for the tall aspect ratio mirroring the verticality of the lighthouse and for the black and white just generally selling some of the period details a bit better. This is not, however, a film that is strictly impressive on a visual level. Eggers’ writing is also quite a thing to behold as he has once again opted to really lean in to the unique dialect of the period he’s set his film in. Dafoe’s character in particular finds himself using an old fashioned seafaring slang and adopts an accent which is not unlike the captain from “The Simpsons.” Occasionally the character will start reciting long passages of nautical invective that was almost certainly an ordeal to write and even harder to recite. The film is well aware of how close this character comes to self-parody, and even comments on this at one point, but it still manages to make it work. It also does a great job of making the Pattinson character very different from Dafoe’s despite still largely being a product of his time.
But what does all of this mean? I don’t know… does it need to mean something? My running theory while watching it is that the island is functioning as a sort of purgatory for the Pattinson character. Over the course of the film he’s constantly being tested in various ways, has a variety of temptations placed before him, and is also sort of forced to face some sort of incident from his past that he feels guilty about. This is not necessarily a Christian purgatory however and a lot of the film’s imagery (especially the final shot) is strongly rooted in older mythology, and alternatively the whole thing could be thought of less as a literal purgatory and more as a sort of manifestation of this character’s guilt through a sort of nightmare. Having said all that I wouldn’t recommend getting to bent out of shape trying to “solve” this movie, not on a first viewing anyway. Instead I’d recommend going with the flow and taking the movie in as a sensory experience and as an almost theatrical exercise in two characters kind of dueling it out for two hours.
****1/2 out of Five