The Lighthouse: On the fringes of cinema
Two men are stuck on a small island of rocks. In the center of the island, a mysterious lighthouse stands, looming seductively in the background. As reality begins to bend, the characters and the audience enter an expressionistic world of abstraction that becomes both repulsing and entrancing.
“The Lighthouse” may be advertised as a horror film, but it quickly strays from that foundation to traipse through a plethora of genres. There is no way around the fact that this film will repel most average viewers because it is fleeing from any conventional narrative. In an interview for Thrillist, Director Robert Eggers explains, “Sometimes a simple story well-told is the best thing, but that’s definitely not what we were after.”
A striking and sensational wonder, “The Lighthouse” is a film that many individuals will not enjoy. Any audience member who walks out of the theatre baffled, disgusted, or bored will be justified as this is no crowd-pleaser. Particularly once the film enters its last fifteen minutes, the story turns from a mysterious and trippy genre mashup to a collage of spiritual and symbolic images and sounds that seemingly make no narrative sense, leading to a final shot which is totally detached from the actual plot.
Eggers even admits, “If we’re successful, we leave you saying, ‘What?’ It’s a bit of a tightrope and we may have fallen off it.” So much importance is placed in the dialogue, yet much of it is deliberately thrown away, making it easy to miss significant elements. The film’s target audience is niche and leaves minimal wiggle room for casual viewers to really enjoy.
Cinefiles, on the other hand, will savor this movie. Its ambiguity leaves the plot and themes open to vast interpretations. “The Lighthouse” is film storytelling at its most experimental, and one of the most admirable things about it is that it could only be properly told through the art of cinema.
The imagery is powerful, with obvious influences of Lovecraftian beauty. The film uses an aspect ratio of 1.19 to 1, cutting off the sides of the frame which creates a claustrophobic environment, trapping the characters. The film is stylized in simple monochrome, and lighting is often limited to a single light source, such as a lantern. Combined with a slow roving camera, slick sound edits, and perfectly asymmetrical frames crafted to look like either mythical paintings or decrepit photographs, the film creates one of the best film environments and geography in this decade.
Much of the film’s effectiveness lies in the hands of its two actors, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, who provide mesmerizing performances that sustain the quick pace and kinetic spirit of the story. Eggers goes out of his way to make the audience feel the monotonous and drudging routine these characters experience, which builds excellently to a defiant climax.
The slow and dialogue heavy existentialism that pervades the story brings to mind the classic play “Waiting for Godot.” In the play, two male characters stuck in one setting endlessly discuss vague topics with obscure language, which invited numerous and wide-ranging interpretations. There is also raw humor, making fun of the human condition while simultaneously feeling sorry for it. This is all present in “The Lighthouse” and adds excessive layers of boundless depth.
While some viewers may relegate the themes to “toxic masculinity”—as has been done with many films this year—“The Lighthouse” is more aptly a study of human toxicity. What happens when individuals revert so harshly to their deep primal sensationalism? This film suggests a greater power may dictate all human souls and punish those who trespass against human morality.
It is both a cautionary tale and a reflection into our most instinctive souls. “The Lighthouse” may not be for everyone, but the intricate craft put into every frame more than allures anyone interested in seeing film pushed to its very edge.