Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow (Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson) are two men stationed at a remote lighthouse on a stormy, rocky island. Wake has a bum leg, so he can’t serve on ships anymore. Winslow is a young man looking for his purpose in life. Wake makes clear that, during their four-week assignment, he will take care of the light and orders Winslow to take care of all other tasks. These tasks include feeding coal into the boiler that blows the foghorn, refilling the oil that powers the light, and general household maintenance. The pair don’t get along and Winslow is hoping to get through the assignment and get paid. As their assignment is nearing an end, Winslow kills a seagull that has been tormenting him. Wake had earlier warned Winslow to not kill a seabird as they are the souls of dead seamen. The wind shifts and a storm begins, delaying the pair leaving the island.
I’ll admit. That plot synopsis for “The Lighthouse” doesn’t sound very interesting. I have intentionally left out some parts of the story as to not give away too much as the movie is best experienced with as little advance information as possible. To be honest, telling you more about the film wouldn’t help much as the feelings and emotions of the film can only be experienced by viewing. I don’t know exactly how I feel about the film from the same director of “The Witch,” but I’ll see if I can reach a conclusion by the end of this review.
The performances of Willem Defoe and Robert Pattinson are amazing. There’s no hint of fear or resistance as the pair strips away all semblance of modernity and totally inhabit the time and lives of these two men. Defoe delivers a speech midway through the film that is an amazing bit of manic acting. Defoe’s Wake is berating Pattinson’s Winslow for being ungrateful and not liking Wake’s cooking. The speech is a curse, delivered unblinking and with the intensity of a laser. Defoe’s performance turns on a dime, switching from parental, to cruel, to insane, to friendly, to intimate. It is a wonder of acting.
Pattinson is an equal while being opposite of Defoe. Winslow just wants to get through his time and get paid, but Wake pushes him to talk, to drink alcohol (despite that being against regulations) and treats him more like a slave than an equal. Pattinson delivers a controlled performance, making his decent into madness all the more affecting. Winslow is the character you feel the most empathy with through most of the film. There comes a point where that begins to change as both Winslow and Wake are suffering from the stress of being stuck together on a small island, constantly bombarded with storms, with no escape. It wouldn’t surprise me if both are nominated for Oscars.
The film is a visually fascinating. The two most obvious things are the aspect ratio and that it’s in black and white. According to the film’s IMDb page, director Robert Eggers wanted the film to look similar to the earliest movies, including shooting it with old cameras and in the aspect ratio of the first films. The image is almost square. The regions of black on each side of the screen gives the film a feeling of claustrophobia and adds to the isolation of the characters.
Shooting “The Lighthouse” in black and white cements the film in the period. While it wouldn’t have been impossible to use color film, black and white provides authenticity and creates a starkness to the image amplifying the other worldliness of this story. Using color stock might have blunted the griminess and dread of this location. Watching a stormy sea of blue water would limit how depressing and angry the roiling ocean looked. The walls of their quarters stained a brownish yellow from pipe and cigarette smoke and oil lamps would give just a hint of happiness in an otherwise joyless existence. Black and white is almost a character in “The Lighthouse.”
“The Lighthouse” is rated R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language. There is a disturbing scene of Winslow killing a seagull (it was a rubber stand in but still troubling). There are a couple of scenes of Wake and Winslow fighting. We see a character’s head in a lobster trap as well as a character having his intestines picked at by seagulls. We see a woman’s breasts a couple of times, as well as both Wake and Winslow naked. There are a couple of scenes where a character masturbates but we don’t see his penis. There is a brief sex scene. There are a couple of farts heard. Foul language is scattered.
A card at the end of the credits says some of the dialog was taken from the writings of Herman Melville and quotes from the diaries of real lighthouse keepers from the period. Much like Eggers’ “The Witch” that took quotes from journals, diaries and court records from the time when the film was set, “The Lighthouse” is filled with words and phrases that are unknown to modern audiences. All this makes the film that much more authentic, tense and weird. Eggers’ films are just weird. The weird of “The Witch” didn’t work as well for me as it plodded and didn’t provide any scares. “The Lighthouse” masterfully creates a huge amount of tension as the build-up to the explosion of violence and madness the audience knows is coming builds like a pressure cooker. We’re never sure when it’s going to blow, and we even have moments of hope, but the inevitable destruction of these two characters is just a matter of time. This film will be polarizing as some won’t understand the point of the picture size, black and white, the language of the script and more. But if you’re looking for something Martin Scorsese would approve of; you should see this film.
“The Lighthouse” gets five stars.
A whopping five new films open this week and I’ll see and review at least one of the following:
Terminator: Dark Fate—
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