Keeping Secrets Are Ye?
Set in the late 1800s, we are introduced to Ephraim Winslow [Pattinson] – a young man running from his past, trying to find a place he can belong and be productive – who takes on a four week position as a wickie for a lighthouse on a remote island off the coast of New England. Winslow’s only company is his supervisor, a cantankerous and superstitious ex-naval man named Thomas Wake [Dafoe]. The two say little to one another and go about their duties but Winslow quickly comes to resent Wake’s orders and dismissal of policy. As his time on the rock continues, Winslow grows restless and longs for the day his tenure is up and he can return to the mainland.
Despite being only his second feature film, Eggers has already proved himself an exceptional talent and become massively endeared to me for creating the kind of fiction that I could only dream of crafting. This is an important statement to bear in mind throughout the course of this review as my bias is more than evident. Having said that, even a layman could identify The Lighthouse as an extremely singular feature that has been powerfully constructed. More than that, it feels as if some old print of an experimental 30s film has been discovered and brought to light. The cinematography is bold and incredibly beautiful, the sound design is tremendous and the score is deeply haunting. But what stands out to me the most is the fact that this is an artist with the talent and (more importantly) the support to create whatever he pleases, regardless of what is trendy or expected; which is something that A24 has been championing since its inception less than ten years ago.
On a structural level, The Lighthouse is gloriously rhythmic. Visually you have the hypnotic draw of the ever turning light at the top of the tower paired with the audio of the continuous, maddeningly damning noise of the fog horn. It’s both comforting in its repetitive constant-presence and agonising in its intrusive indifference to the plight of those around it. In a way, there’s an almost Lovecraftian descent into mania, playing with themes of superstition, otherworldly influences and daring to know an uncaring natural phenomena. But the similarities with the works of HP Lovecraft are merely the surface of the inspiration and comparisons that can be drawn. In truth there are nods to Promethean legend and many parallels with The Shining and something like A Field In England but rather than directly homaging or plagiarising these works, The Lighthouse feels like a companion piece, analysing related concepts while still feeling fresh and original.
Speaking of sister works, so many of the underlying ideas at play were present in Egger’s previous release, The Witch. Both feel like time capsule pieces free from contemporary trappings, rife with superstition and projecting a world that feels at the same time both alien and eerily familiar to us. While this could be said for most period fiction, the way in which Jarin Blaschke shoots these films bucks modern expectations and preconceptions, giving us a truly uncommon aesthetic. Then we have the subject of man in isolation and all of the paranoid, horror that comes with it. For this story, religious fervour has been substituted with frantic, obsessive superstition but the effect is the same and an analysis is presented which posits that when left to our devices free from the watchful eye and judgments of civilisation, we sink to our baser urges, through sexual obsession aided by the consolation and comfort engendered by alcoholic stupor.
Something I sincerely adore is the script’s use of language, with little regard for the audience. Striving for authenticity and atmospheric immersion, it seems to almost purposefully ostracise the viewer in an attempt to bring to life this antiquated era. But while the words alone are fantastic, it’s the performances that sell us on this world. So much is put upon Pattinson and Dafoe but they rise to the challenge masterfully and command and captivate throughout; whether it’s Pattinson’s physical endurance and fatigue or Dafoe’s wide-eyed monologues, everything feels meticulously calculated and entirely organic. There is also an amusing nod to the possessive gatekeeper mentality that perfectly fits these keepers of the light. But this does bring us to the only real problems with this almost flawless release. Less a flaw, more a stumble, is that the pacing loses a bit of steam due to a lack of variety and the somewhat formulaic nature of the narrative. Earlier I praised the rhythmic quality to the film’s construction but this also leads to a somewhat monotonous slog of routine and repetition that can grind viewer’s patience and ultimately, when stripped of all its eerie majesty and pageantry, The Lighthouse is remarkably silly with a surprising amount of fart jokes that partly weakens its more superior qualities.
In conclusion, The Lighthouse is another audacious, impactful and unsettling study from Eggers that will polarise audiences and either be immediately rejected or held aloft. In my earnest opinion, it is an undeniable achievement and riveting throughout.
07 February 2020
The Scene To Look Out For:
One of the only additional members of the cast is a mermaid whose shrill cry and ghastly presence haunts Winslow’s (presumably) dreams. The mermaid sequences are truly terrifying and serve as one of the main sources of horror in this chilling dark supernatural thriller. In terms of performance, the visual effects and the sound design, her appearance serves a reminder of the sinister and monstrous origin of a mythology modern cinema has all but sterilised.
The gull. A combination of trained birds, puppetry and prop work is a true personality unto itself and a deeply oppressive and disturbing one.
“To ye, you beauty”
In A Few Words:
“Eggers once again proves he is one of the most unique and captivating talents working today”