Director Robert Eggers is best known for his first feature, the 2015 folkloric horror film The Witch. His latest release, The Lighthouse, moves further and even more boldly in a similar direction. Starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, the iconic film has now landed on Netflix.
Eggers has drawn from historical sources in both projects. The Witch was derived from a selection of early New England tales and first-person accounts, spinning some of the seventeenth century Puritans’ fear of witchcraft and demonic influence into a disturbingly lifelike narrative; while The Lighthouse is partly based on the experiences of actual nineteenth-century lighthouse keepers and mariners, particularly on a notorious 1801 incident involving stranded lighthouse keepers, and is influenced by seafaring fiction and mythology.
Like The Witch, it is bleakly realistic with mythical or supernatural overtones, but both aspects are heightened, the real elements darker, and the mystical or imaginary aspects expanded and laid out in shocking and unexpected ways that make the film difficult to describe; it is something that must simply be experienced. The script, co-written by the director and his brother, Max Eggers, begins with grim circumstances of men marooned at a lighthouse station, deftly escalates the isolation and tension, and intensifies the story into a ghastly character study with suggestions of the supernatural. The film premiered at Cannes, where it took the FIPRESCI film critics’ award, before moving on to further acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Filmed entirely in black and white, the look of the film is striking from the very first image: a rowboat delivering two men to a fog-shrouded rock, where they are to tend the lighthouse for the next four weeks. The older of the two, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), is an archetypal old sailor, from weathered face and grey whiskers to colourful seaman’s jargon. The younger man, who introduces himself as Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), is harder to categorise. Both men are glum and resigned as they arrive at the isolated rock which holds only a lighthouse, storage for coal and supplies, and a shabby cottage to house the attendants. Wake is gruff but attempts to be friendly at first, sharing tales of his life at sea; while Winslow is cautious and reserved, even secretive, politely refusing the whisky Wake offers and saying little about his own past. Wake is in charge, and burdens Winslow with the heavy work, keeping the care of the lighthouse lamp to himself, even keeping the lamp chamber locked. The film takes time to set up the personalities of the two characters and their strained but civil working relationship. At the same time, an element of the supernatural begins to creep in, at first through Wake’s tall tales, but also through his almost devotional attitude toward his jealously guarded lighthouse lamp.
What is most striking is the film’s unique look, the use of light and camera work to establish a mood, and to help tell the story more clearly than the actual dialogue. Many scenes are filmed in a purposely sneaky, voyeuristic way, the camera following a character from behind walls and through doorways as if the audience is spying on him. The suggestion of spying is a continued thread: the two men are often seen to furtively watch each other through windows or around corners. The visual approach enhances the continual gloom and sense of foreboding that lies over almost every scene, breaking into contrasting sharp, fast-moving images to portray Winslow’s dark thoughts, while unusual close-ups of the lighthouse lamp bring across its allure and significance.
The film expands further into the uncanny in several areas at once, as the story begins to include visual depictions of Winslow’s thoughts and dreams. Winslow finds a small mermaid carving, which becomes an erotic fixation, but his fantasies are tinged with a growing degree of danger and fear, images of violence and death. As director Eggers revealed, he went to considerable trouble to find the perfect images for these fleeting shots, searching out both sea legends and forms of marine life that expressed Winslow’s unconscious fears. The plot shifts when Winslow, annoyed by the ever-present seagulls, kills one who had been harassing him, against Wake’s dire warnings that it is terrible luck to kill a sea bird. Soon after, just as Winslow’s term of service is about to end and a boat due to return him to the mainland, a severe and protracted storm breaks out, leaving both men stranded for an indefinite period. Their mutual hostility grows along with their cabin fever, they both start to drink heavily, and Winslow’s unexplained sense of apprehension begins to overpower him, his fantasies become increasingly violent and horrifying, and he starts to obsessively covet Wake’s access to the lamp. What follows is an indescribable, slow-paced, brilliantly depicted study of two men falling into a horrifying decline, driven by solitude, suspicion, and personal demons. Wake, more accustomed to life as a lighthouse keeper, at first merely becomes surly and suspicious, and constantly drunk; but Winslow, already haunted by secrets, moves into something more like insanity.
The dual scenes are incredible, showing two men who hate and distrust one another, yet recognise their own mutual dependence. As they run out of whisky and move on to drinking kerosene, any remaining decorum starts to dissolve, the weeks-long storm raging outside a perfect counterpart to the simmering hostility, desperation, and unhinged thinking taking place inside the cottage. The men veer wildly from sympathy and even affection to fistfights, and Winslow’s corrosive secrets start to emerge as his state of mind disintegrates alarmingly. The film uses multiple techniques to show the rising influence of the supernatural – whether real or only in Winslow’s imagination almost irrelevant at this point, as previous assumptions are found to be false or misleading, the identity of the two characters brought into question, and even basic reality overturned. The viewer is offered new explanations of what is happening even as the plot turns in unexpected directions. It remains riveting through to the grisly conclusion.
The Lighthouse is brilliant largely because of the director’s careful management of every detail to create an incredible level of suspense and uneasiness, allowing common human fears and failings to expand into something ghastly and frightening. In its appreciation of the terror potential of human nature under stress, and its skill and subtlety at using image and sound to create suspense, The Lighthouse might be compared to the best of Hitchcock, if it was not for the creatively bizarre images and the mingling of the real with the hallucinatory – more like Hitchcock on mescaline. The story is even, Hitchcock style, allowed the occasional touch of humour, just enough to enhance the horror without distracting from it. The choice of black and white, 35 mm film turns out to be not merely a stylistic affectation; it is helpful in setting and maintaining the mood. In what is essentially a two-man show (apart from a brief, chilling appearances by Valeriia Karaman as Winslow’s imaginary mermaid) casting is also essential, and the two actors were well chosen. Willem Dafoe lives up to his stellar reputation, walking a fine line between a colourful character and a caricature, at one point managing to deliver a lengthy, florid sailor’s curse with full-blown histrionics, allowing the scene to become almost ridiculous without quite losing its ominous edge.
Robert Pattinson as Winslow strikes the perfect tone, bringing across a man haunted and afraid without predictable mannerisms, silently expressing his pain and confusion even while appearing to simply carry on with his chores. The scenes where they appear together are stunning, both actors fierce and very physical, bouncing off one another in seemingly spontaneous, startlingly intense exchanges, verbal and otherwise. It is one of the most carefully crafted, and most disturbing, horror films in many years.