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The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

[…] Rather than providing a directional path through the story, Eggers sets his film on a harsh, remote island and lets nature take the lead, along with the most primal human needs and instincts, to create a structure and a style that superbly channels the haunted universe of Herman Melville.

[…] From beginning to end, «The Lighthouse» is a sensual, raw, often ruthless and claustrophobic cinematic experience. There is fear and there is rage, there is world weariness and spiritual catharsis, and there is doom and utter hopelessness, all feeding into a weirdly hypnotising narrative of masculine oppression, intimacy and descent.

To avoid any confusion: there is little light in The Lighthouse. The tone is pitch dark, the screen mostly lit in differing shades of grey, and at some point during this rough, growling maritime two-hander the main characters both lose their way and their senses and, ultimately, only see red.

Intricacy, bewilderment and chaos, however, are the driving force in Robert Eggers’ impressive follow up to New England ghost story The Witch, in which the director invested a lot of period details to get things just right. He does the same in The Lighthouse, perhaps to an even greater extent, but the result shows it was clearly worth the effort. What’s more, the film does not only turn the primary functions of a lighthouse (as a navigation and warning tool) on its head, it also uses old cinematic and literary tropes to create an atmosphere that is as eerie as it is exciting.

Rather than providing a directional path through the story, Eggers sets his film on a harsh, remote island and lets nature take the lead, along with the most primal human needs and instincts, to create a structure and a style that superbly channels the haunted universe of Herman Melville. In fact, much of the dialogue is taken from sources that include Melville’s writing and the diaries of 19th-century sailors and lighthouse keepers, but the connection to the great old master of dense and complex prose goes deeper. There’s a stellar scene where Willem Dafoe’s grizzled lighthouse keeper Tom, shot from an angle that makes him appear diabolic to the core, delivers a torrential monologue, wishing all the demons of the deep upon his recruit’s head, and for a brief moment it seems as if the lingering sense of being trapped with these two men on this godforsaken island is becoming all too real – and, for some weaker souls, perhaps a little too much to bear.

There are other incidents where one can almost smell the salt and feel the mud under Robert Pattinson’s feet as the battered apprentice he portrays, Ephraim, pushes a wheelbarrow through the unforgiving ground, drenched to his bones from the heavy rain that will soon turn into a full-blown storm. The landscape is stark and treacherous, but there is no hope for salvation in the dark interior of the lighthouse either. Shooting in an almost square ratio that’s close to Academy, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke manages to capture the harrowing beauty inside and out in the smallest detail, often meshing modern and antiquated techniques, and with his camera creeping up and into the two actors’ faces in ghoulish ways. Meanwhile, music and sound design also intertwine wonderfully, blending the threatening howling of the storm with the deathly boom of the lighthouse’s warning foghorn at night.

From beginning to end, The Lighthouse is a sensual, raw, often ruthless and claustrophobic cinematic experience. There is fear and there is rage, there is world weariness and spiritual catharsis, and there is doom and utter hopelessness, all feeding into a weirdly hypnotising narrative of masculine oppression, intimacy and descent. It’s a film deeply concerned with powerful physical impulses und ancient, almost mythical emotions, from Oedipal tension to soul eating desire and brutal male jealousy. So much so, that with a running time of almost two hours it is at risk of overstaying its welcome but, even when things are starting to become repetitive, the film never feels dreary. Instead, Eggers’ script (co-written by his brother Max) conveys a bleak sense of humour while Patterson sports a surprising hint of slapstick during Ephraim’s various misfortunate attempts in completing the tasks assigned to him. At the same time, Dafoe, in authentic wickie fashion, mumbles and curses old folk tales and sailors’ yarns into his rambling beard and never fails to show off his alarming yet impressive drinking habits.

It is when their flawless acting, Eggers’ meticulous attention to historic detail and his bold directorial vision come together that The Lighthouse is at its haunting best. For a brief final moment there will be light – so equally bright, paralysing and terrifying in measure that it outshines most of the elevated horror tales that have populated the cinema screen in recent years.

 

First published: November 28, 2019

The Lighthouse | Film | Robert Eggers | USA-CAN 2019 | 110’ | Zurich Film Festival 2019

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