by Jacob Wingate-Bishop
In a world inundated with bigger explosions, brighter colours and more CGI on the film screen, it’s a wonder that 2019’s The Lighthouse saw release at all. With its painfully long shots, black-and-white palette and sparing use of dialogue, the word ‘arthouse’ comes to mind when embarking on the first watch. But if it an ‘arty film’ (whatever that actually means), then it’s certainly on the more accessible end.
It’s impossible to really define it, though. Indeed, one of the first observations made of the movie upon release was, well, what genre it really belonged to. Is it a horror? A film about isolation and survival? A psychological thriller? A supernatural, Lovecraftian epic? Or something else entirely? In truth, it’s all of those. It’s just one of those movies where you make of it what you will. It’s not quite ambiguous, more just… weird. Really weird.
But it’s also an enthralling, 100-minute tale that drags you through the salt-bitten remoteness of two wickies – lighthouse keepers – seemingly abandoned at sea. As Winslow (Robert Pattinson) succumbs to madder and madder thoughts, he only has the cryptic, ill-tempered Wake (Willem Dafoe) for company, a man he comes to resent, then understand, then resent again. On and on, throughout the movie, joyous bonds become rivalries, bitter hostility gives way to friendship.
Shot on 35mm film and utilizing a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the movie is purposefully claustrophobic. As if pitting two increasingly frustrated men against eachother in a small, ramshackle lighthouse out at sea wasn’t bad enough, director Robert Eggers wanted a screen like that of a box, keeping the two tight together in frame, having them dominate every scene they’re in. They cannot escape eachother and we, in turn, have nowhere else to look. The lack of colour also creates this sense of impassable stagnation. There is no life, joy or hope anywhere in the movie. It is all black as night, or white as the churning sea.
The performances throughout the film are incredible. Really, they’re what bind the bare-bones script together. The shots of tumultuous sea are awe-inspiring and terrifying in equal measure, but it’s the credibility of both Pattinson and Dafoe which make it all the more enthralling, like that of the titular light.
Pattinson nails a man with a hidden secret; a man on the run, willing to put as much distance between himself and the past as possible. And yet, in his newfound isolation, he finds no solace. He grows more and more discontent, prone to flights of fancy and engaging in more aggressive encounters with his fellow wickie.
Dafoe, meanwhile, embodies the fierce spirit of Proteus himself in Wake, a man who seems as mad as he is superstitious. Spitting Shakespearean soliloquies and old fishermen’s tales, he’s every inch the crusty, decrepit old soul that’s part of the jagged isle as the barnacles themselves.
The Lighthouse is, quite simply, one of the best horror films I have ever seen. Perhaps, I confess, because whilst it does not take long for Winslow to begin down his path to insanity, the film, chiefly, deals with what you don’t see. Owing to the genre of cosmic horror, The Lighthouse never gives you exact answers, leaving you to the same, perplexed fate of Pattinson’s Winslow. We never truly get a resolution, and yet the ending is as strange and alluring as you could ever wish it to be. There is a real catharsis in finally reaching the climax of the movie, and yet naught but questions at the same time.
In the end, we are Winslow, and experience just as much as he does. We start to feel the dreaded abandonment of that lighthouse, festering in every shot of sea spray and battering tide. We feel the same sweat-soaked monotony of the characters’ arduous duties, every scrub of the wooden floor, every oiling of the lighthouse’s industry. We breathe a sigh of relief as Winslow and Wake make merry with eachother, recoil as they trade verbal blows, and ponder what the blinding secret is at the heart of that island.
I cannot recommend The Lighthouse enough. In a world seemingly polluted by endless superhero battles, emotionless blockbusters and cliché romances, it’s truly a one-of-a-kind film. It lacks the pretentiousness or boredom of a true arthouse movie, instead relying on archaic camera techniques and filming tricks to better convey what the film is truly about.
And what is the film truly about, you ask? Well, I’m not giving you the answer to that one. You’ll have to experience it yourself and ruminate on what it all means like the rest of us. After all, as Wake muses, ‘boredom makes men to villains’.