In this psychological thriller, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson star as two lighthouse keepers who become stranded on their small island when a storm hits. As their relationship deepens into something abusive and toxic, their sanity wanes, and their true identities begin to come to light.
This is a gorgeous black and white film that is rich with symbolism and steeped in 19th century American history. Like in his debut film, The Witch, director Robert Eggers went to great lengths to accurately portray the historical setting, including dialogue that mimics writers of the time, period-accurate clothing, and even having a functioning lighthouse and cottage built from scratch. In addition to the production, the cinematography helps transport the viewer back in time with an almost square, vintage-looking aspect ratio (1.19:1), which was pretty much only used in the 20’s and 30’s, when sound film was blowing up. It induces some claustrophobia and makes you wonder what madness is lurking just out of frame.
Psychoanalysts would certainly have a field day with this film, though Eggers admits that he is “more about questions than answers.“1 The director slips in some Greek Mythology, depicting Thomas Wake (Dafoe) as Proteus and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) as Prometheus in certain points in the movie, as well as a direct reference to Sascha Schneider’s painting, Hypnosis, which makes for a beautiful shot. The film is also teeming with sexual imagery: an alluring siren screeches on the rocks, a scrimshaw mermaid serves as a tool for masturbation– hell, there’s even some seaman semen. Eggers had a plan to portray the lighthouse as overtly phallic and then cut to Pattinson’s actual erection, but that idea was shot down by funders. Personally, I don’t think it would have been that shocking compared to much of the movie.
The Lighthouse is meticulously crafted, but this sort of pedantry of Eggers doesn’t come off as ostentatious. In fact, this movie is hilarious, bringing just the right amount of levity for the viewer not to go insane along with the two wickies. There may be enough cabin fever to rival the isolating madness of The Shining, but there are also enough farts to rival those of Dumb and Dumber, as Dafoe’s character often lets it rip with wild abandon. In one scene, Dafoe launches into a lengthy diatribe after Pattinson doesn’t compliment his cooking. It’s one of the best monologues I have ever heard—especially considering the gruff, old-timey sailor accent Dafoe puts on for the film—and when he’s done, Pattinson simply relents, saying, “Alright, have it your way. I like your cooking.”
The accents were just one of the tricky things for the actors to pull off. In April, they shot in unforgiving weather at Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia. Due to the type of low-exposure film they used, a lot of extra light was required. So much light, in fact, that the actors sometimes couldn’t even see each other. Add to all this, the complexity of some of the shots, and Dafoe and Pattinson both give some of the most memorable performances I have ever seen in horror. I am surprised that The Lighthouse only got nominated for Best Cinematography (1917 got the win, deservedly). There should be more modern black and white films like this. It is one of my all-time favorite movies now, and I hope that it gets the appreciation it deserves.
Here’s what you’ll miss if you cover your eyes:
Some excellent bird acting
A Big Lebowski moment, only instead of a Folgers can full of ashes, it’s chamber pots filled with poo
Pattinson screaming, “Goddamn your farts!”
Dafoe giving a monologue as dirt is shoveled into his mouth
And so much more…