Review: The Lighthouse (2020)

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In 2016, Robert Eggers impressed the world with The Witch: a meticulous period film, mixing Christian import and feverish paranoia in its telling of a New England family, succumbing to the follies of their puritanical existence. The film remains one of the great champions of the “elevated horror” sub-genre that’s been in vogue this decade: emphasising ambiguity with its supernatural aspects, which would be a given in most conventional horror movies.

Egger’s follow up effort- The Lighthouse is an altogether a different experience, beguiling in its surreal imagery and madcapped in its performances: the film cements Eggers as a director who’s able to chart lengthy excursions into the dark corners of the human psyche with flair and ease.

Ostensibly, The Lighthouse is a two man play. Robert Pattinson plays a quiet and unassuming man called Ephraim Winslow. He’s under contract for six weeks to work for veteran lighthouse keeper- Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Winslow’s time with Wake is tough and swift. However, the sanity of both men is tested when a raging storm strands them indefinitely.

Visually, The Lighthouse appears to be a film that’s been recovered from the silent era. Shot in black and white with an 1.19:1 (19:16) aspect ratio, the film matches the cinematic asetic of many silent films from the 1920s. The aspect ratio also functions as a point of claustrophobia, boxing in the characters to their desolate surroundings. But Jarin Blaschke’s Oscar nominated cinematography shines in the long shots where the characters appear infinitesimal compared to their surroundings.

With its persistent mechanised roars that sound like Godzilla in tone, the titular Lighthouse truly comes alive with impressive sound design. While Mark Korven’s unsettles with a powerfully ominous score that sounds like a mashup between a Bernard Herrman and Vangalis score.

Since Twilight, it’s been fascinating to see Robert Pattinson’s versatility as an actor, trading in leading man status for unassuming character actor performances. Initially appearing as aloof as Buster Keaton and vocally like Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood: Pattinson’s performance as Winslow is a glorious go for broke display that fully unshackles him from his shiny vampire status. On paper, Thomas Wake seems like a character you would find in the great big book of cliches. However, Dafoe imbues Wake with Shakespearean weight, delivering his barnstorming monologues as though he’s reciting lines from King Lear.

Thematically, Egger’s second feature is about the unravelling of an individual, proving that beneath the veneer of respectability and innocence, there’s something altogether starker and sinister. At first, Winslow is a quiet and untroubled individual, who through the course of the film is revealed to be a brash and uncaring man, who wallows in his lust and sorrow.

Similarly to Anya Taylor Joy’s Thomasin in the Witch, one could read Winslow’s descent into madness as a result of supernatural forces acting through other people. In the Witch, it was the satanic influence of Black Philip plying Thomasin’s younger siblings minds with poisonous thoughts. In the Lighthouse, Wake acts as the instigator with superstitious tales and a direct warning to stay away from the top of the Lighthouse.

In this way, the film is a tense and maddening morality play about the dangers of rubbing someone’s nose in about their established customs and lore. At the same time, the film also works within the framework of horror movie morality, where an unlikable person gets their comeuppance in the most vicious way.

However you choose to interpret The Lighthouse, there’s no denying it’s power to enthral and disturb. It’s a film that does not walk the tight rope of convention but instead runs at its own frantic and strange pace.

About Sartaj Govind Singh

Notes from a distant observer: “Sartaj is a very eccentric fellow with a penchant for hats. He likes watching films and writes about them in great analytical detail. He has an MA degree in Philosophy and has been known to wear Mickey Mouse ears on his birthday.”
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