Director: Robert Eggers
Writer: Robert Eggers
Cinematographer: Jarin Blaschke
Producer: Rodrigo Teixeira, Daniel Bekerman, Lars Knudsen, Jodi Redmond, and Jay Van Hoy
by Jon Cvack
In terms of the new generation of cinematic directors, Robert Eggers is one of the most exciting. The premise of The Lighthouse is known without needing to see anything more than the poster. An eerie Lovecraftian/Pinter black and white hybrid about two lighthouse keepers attempting to cope with island fever, featuring two A-list players. It’s the type of film that forms an immediate image in your head which you pray will match your expectations. It does, holding them all the way to the end.
The story involves rookie lighthouse keeper Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) as the elderly boss as they arrive by boat on a small island with a modest lighthouse attached to a decrepit cabin. From the gate and without gratuity, we learn the situation - they are stationed there for six weeks, Thomas is the boss and an alcoholic, Ephraim doesn’t drink.
So begins a story that’s hard to summarize, which only another viewing could possibly provide, so consider this some initial thoughts which will expand in the future. Ephraim quickly realizes that his job is to do all of the work while Thomas hangs out at the lighthouse. He mops and washes floors, polishes metal as though sanding it down, and repaints the lighthouse, all while failing to meet Thomas’ expectations. There is nothing he can do that is right and soon a mixture of criticism and solitude causes Ephraim to turn back to the bottle, leading him and Thomas to get drunk and enjoy their first debaucherous night and from there it descends into madness. Whenever I watch or read Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, or other absurdists, I’m left wondering how their work could inspire a film. The Lighthouse provides that exact idea.
It’s the type of story that I see people immediately trying to categorize within the realm of the plausible; that for whatever reason, no matter the images or methods, this is something that is actually happening, rather than serving as metaphor. My initial experience is that the film is about someone in hell - either figuratively or literally; whether mental or actual. We learn that Ephraim is a murderer and rapist and that he had given up drinking to avoid the impulses he once had. Throughout the film are Lovecraftian flashbacks to images of octopuses, a dead woman, and a sexualized and terrifying mermaid showing all the detailed anatomy used to lure men. Ephraim is also being harassed by a one eyed seagull that he later destroys in the film’s most horrifying scene, whipping the bird into the concrete as it explodes into a feathery and bloody mess.
Throughout the film Ephraim is determined to get to the lighthouse, going so far as to drag a full kerosene drum up the winding staircase, taking each step one by one only for Thomas to tell him to take it back back down; made all the more complicated by the hyper masculine yet homoerotic dynamic between the two characters, with Ephraim going so far as to kiss Thomas.
It all adds up into a bizarre story whose abstraction shouldn’t work and yet somehow keeps chugging all the way to the end. My immediate impression is that Ephraim had killed and raped a woman in some seaside town, was executed, and now lives on the hellish island where he’s forced to confront his future self, never able to get off. When he reaches the light I don’t see his salvation so much as the process beginning all over again; with Ephraim and Thomas back on the boat, looking toward the flashing light once again. I lean toward a purgatory in which Ephraim is constantly tested - to have sex with the mermaid, to abstain from booze, and to avoid killing Thomas as he fails over and over again; having to relive the experience.
The film is a refreshing glimpse into the imagination - not to revert to mental delusion or dreams, but to dive deep into an alternative world. At times there is a bit too much abstraction, but it was drowned out by the imagery and shattering performances. It’s the pinnacle of having an actor convey emotion with words as I only understood about two thirds of what was said. I felt as though I was on a ride, forced and willingly accepting the unfamiliar. Combined with some of the most haunting cinematography I’ve seen in years*. It was a movie experience I’ll never forget.
*Robert Eggers somehow allowed a 1.19 x 1 aspect ratio to take on widescreen proportions as he had the wings of the frame in black, blending in with the theater screen. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life; a movie that physically shifted between ratios.
BELOW: Cute couple
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