If we take the proverbial meaning of a lighthouse, it is a structure meant to warn of dangerous coastlines for navigation and mark safe entries into harbors. Modern day electronic navigation systems have seen the decline of the lighthouse. In the 1800’s as is the setting for Robert Eggers’s “The Lighthouse,” they were prevalent and they needed hardy men to man them.
Eggers, who directed The Witch to wild acclaim has returned with a psychological examination of isolation and escapism on the high seas. Robert Pattinson plays Ephraim Winslow, a retired timberman looking for an honest days’ work as a wickie or a lighthouse keeper. We know from early on in the film that not everything is as it seems with Winslow, but this does not sway the irascible Thomas Wake, played expertly by Willem Dafoe.
There is an intimacy about Jarin Blaschke’s gorgeous black and white cinematography. The 4:3 framed images depict and ongoing mental struggle within Ephraim as he tries to keep his wits about himself. Wake pushes the young Ephraim as if there is something more at stake than the ongoing maintenance of a simple lighthouse.
The story written by Robert and Max Eggers taps into the inner psyche of isolationism while at the same time driving home the idea of regret and desire. There is a fluidness to the film through Dafoe’s and Pattinson’s performances, bringing the close confines of the lighthouse’s interior an energy that radiates from the screen.
It is clear that neither character likes the other. Pattinson’s Winslow brings along a lot of emotional baggage defining his arc. Without delving into the inner workings of the story, Pattinson is no longer the twinky vampire from Twlighlight; no, he’s found a dramatic prose that the Safdie Brothers tapped into a few years’ back. It is that same trait that Eggers was able to draw from – there’s something about Pattinson being emotionally confined to a character, especially Winslow that I found oddly soothing, almost operatic.
One recurring dream that Winslow has to do with a siren, a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman) with whom he makes love. Many of the dreams end up in horrific places, with Winslow screaming at the top of his lungs.
As the gruff taker Wake, Dafoe is cantankerous and withdrawn and is the perfect contrast to Winslow. Dafoe, who acts with his eyes much of the time, is a formidable presence next to Pattinson where they fed off one other’s energy.
It is easy to see how divisive this film is though I do understand why there was so much love for it coming out of Cannes where it won the FIPRESCI award. The film feels alive; there is a viscerality about the story that makes it seem more like a construct; an ode to Eggers’s horror allegory.
There’s a title card toward the end of the end credit roll indicating that the story was influenced in part by Herman Melville (‘Moby Dick’). Though I am not a Melville acolyte, I’ve seen enough films that reference his work to know that Eggers drew from him, if not specifically then in spirit.
The horrors of isolation also beget our emotional baggage influencing Eggers story; they give gravitas to the two men who are the waking, dreaming nightmare that is “The Lighthouse.”
- The Lighthouse