The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse ★★★★

Robert Eggers The Witch was a moody, atmospheric, and wonderfully creepy horror film that managed to transcend its genre and become one of the best arthouse pieces of 2015. I had similar hopes for The Lighthouse, given its black and white cinematography and limited cast. And...well...I got something kind of like that. The Lighthouse is no doubt an atmospheric thought piece. However, despite its sublime beauty, it's less of a coherent narrative film, and much more of a nineteenth century poem brought to life.

Taking place almost entirely on an island lighthouse in the 1890s, the film shows the conflict between lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem DaFoe) and his new counterpart Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson.) Left alone in a mixture of storm surge, clashing personalities and decreasing provisions, the two try to preserve themselves and their sanity in the seeming neverending maelstrom surrounding them. To call The Lighthouse an atmospheric piece isn't really doing it the justice that it deserves. The stark black and white cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is beautiful in its own way, yet unsettling at the same time. It gives the film a distinctive look that evokes an almost dreamlike atmosphere (more on that in a moment) that only adds to the unsettling events that are taking place on the island. It's nomination at the Academy Awards was a nice consolation prize for a film that was otherwise overlooked (though it should have won over Roger Deakins' gimmicked one-shot trick in 1917, in my opinion).

The performances of the film are adequate with what they need to be. Seeing a performance like this out of Willem DaFoe isn't exactly surprising; the man has made a career out of playing unsettling characters in the past. It's Pattinson who is the real show-stealer, given much more narrative to work with (the only "arc" that can be said to happen in the film applies to him). While he has certainly been showing his acting chops for quite a while now (particularly in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis), this is probably the best work that he has ever turned in, purely from a character standpoint if not from an emotional one. It's because of him mostly that the viewer begins to question the reality of the narrative that is unfurling around us, as it coincides with the unraveling of Ephraim's own sanity, to the point where we begin to wonder if the story that he is telling is real or if it is just part of the dream-like world being constructed before our very eyes.

Because far more than any performance or technical element, The Lighthouse is a work of art generated by Eggers and his brother Max. Initially taking inspiration from unfinished work by Edgar Allen Poe, instead the two brothers crafted a film that feels more in line with the work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge than anything else (particularly in the continued symbolism of the gull, which acts as a callback to Coleridge's famous story/poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner). Like it was with the Witch, Eggers mines old time literature and folklore to create a film that is seeped in both. Unlike the Witch, which managed to switch its narrative into a more conventional one towards the end of the film, The Lighthouse never veers towards convention. Like a David Lynch film, The Lighthouse remains symbolic and (some would argue) almost impenetrable to the very end.

And it's that impregnability that leaves me somewhat stumped at how to rate the film. From a technical standpoint (and an acting one to be quite frank), it should rank as one of the best films from last year. However the film does ring emotionally hollow, and an argument can be made that it is simply engaging in symbolism for the sake of symbolism, signifying nothing really. I think it manages to fall into the rare middle ground, a film that signifies whatever the viewer wants to project onto it. The symbolism is so broad (save for when it is engaging directly in the use of maritime legend, such as the mermaid and afore mentioned seagulls) that the weight the viewer wants to give it (and subsequently the loosely held together narrative) is entirely up to you. The Lighthouse is a masterwork in subjective storytelling, defying being pigeonholed into one genre or another. And that ultimately is its claim to greatness. It's a hard nut to crack, but once you do I think it's well worth the effort. And as said before, from a purely technical standpoint it is simply a well made film. Definitely one you don't want to miss.