The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse ★★★★★

BFI London Film Festival 2019

#16 - The Lighthouse

Ephraim Winslow: If I had a steak, I’d fuck it.

The audacity, the AU-DA-CITY, of Robert Eggers, is astonishing. To come along, out of the blue, and deliver a one-two of incontrovertible masterpieces with such confidence and control, is nothing short of remarkable, and is a clear sign that what we are witnessing is the introduction of a new master to the cinematic medium. 

A barmy, briny, bold, and brilliantly insidious sea shanty, The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as an old sea dog lighthouse keeper and his new wicky who find themselves stranded together and slowly descending into madness. What it seems and what we see are pitted against each other, and as the storms rage outside, the cracks grow ever wider within. Mythology, maritime lore, and two men bound on a journey to Lovecraftian distraction and destruction all converge in a completely singular and unforgettable experience.

What staggers me most about both The Witch and now this film is Eggers’ meticulous craft as a filmmaker. For the former, he spent years sorting through historical documents and letters to fine tune the dialect his characters spoke and give authenticity to their words, diving deep into Catholic superstition and occultism to produce a film that frightens as much with its accuracy as it does with its content. With The Lighthouse, again Eggers left no stone unturned. Armed with a huge book of old sea speak and spending prolonged periods in and around lighthouses, learning their every nook and cranny, convention and quarter, Eggers became an expert in the setting as well as the subject of his film. Aiming to dive even deeper than he did with The Witch, he also employs cameras retrofitted to the standards of early cinema, filming with an almost expressionistic on one level and Bergmanesque on another monochromatic lens. Not only that, but the cameras used produce film at the very peculiar but supremely effective 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which essentially is a boxed screen, evoking the silent cinema of the early 1900s and inculcating a claustrophobic atmosphere that, when coupled with the cameras themselves which produce such harsh blacks and smoggy whites, render the film aesthetically exactly as it is thematically - murky, uncomfortably intimate, and almost oppressively gloom-stricken.

For any of a number of other filmmakers, the decision to film in such a style as this would be a cheap gimmick, but in Eggers’ hands these decisions are purposeful and pragmatic, as well as stylistically striking. With the look and feel nailed, his decision to film in Nova Scotia’s notoriously harsh climes also pays dividends in the finished film. You can see the physical effects on Pattinson and Dafoe, whose Eggers induced cabin fever led them to hold the tension between them off screen as much as on it, as there is a primalism to their eccentric performances that energises every frame that they occupy. As Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow hauls coal and combats lashing rain and fierce winds, his growls and yells come from the gut, and as Dafoe’s Thomas Wake glowers wild-eyed at his only companion the weeks spent in isolation whilst filming lend an imposing urgency to his demeanour. When the pair fight, it feels real, and when they get drunk and get merry, it’s as if the extremities they’ve gone through truly do fade for a precious few moments. 

Plus, y’know, filming on location with monochromatic lenses retrofitted to early 20th century standards that are capturing two of the finest living actors of today is fucking awesome, so there’s that too.

Also worthy of praise is Eggers collaborator and  composer Mark Korven, whose horn-led instrumentation infuses with the wailing seas and rolling waves to sustain the ethereal, nightmarish atmosphere that Eggers’ film relentlessly pursues. 

And that is the key to the film in many ways, its perfect synchronisation of all of its elements, through which it is only then possible to actually create something that feels so chaotic and out of control. Eggers is spinning plates and he’s in control of every last one as he lets them crash to the floor and revels in the shards’ piercing of our collective psyches. He ran his actors’ lines hundreds of times, to the delight of thesp Willem Dafoe and the abject dismay of instinctive actor Robert Pattinson, hammering the sea speak Dafoe resultantly performs with such rhythm and poetic gruffness, and doing the same for the specific Maine dialect and accent Pattinson uses so well.

Formally faultless and performatively exceptional, The Lighthouse is the closest thing to objective perfection you’re likely to watch this year (or early next, to be more accurate). And, above all else, it is genuinely as mad as a barnacle addled mermaid on acid. Pattinson masturbates over a miniature doll obsessively, whilst Dafoe calls upon Triton’s wrath to smite his mate when his cooking is called into question. There are songs sung boozily in the wee small hours and a raging feud with a seagull who clearly is a time-travelling scholar of Hitchcock’s The Birds and that film’s winged menaces, and a recurring gag that literally centres on hearing a once-in-a-generation actor fart to the point of driving Pattinson’s Ephraim insane. 

But again, and I can’t stress this enough, this film is just absolutely faultless, and it pays off so so well. Almost scholarly in approach, but purely creatively driven in construction and development, this is a siren song that promises to raise a laugh with as much ease as it nestles increasingly warped and grim ideas and imagery in the mind. Robert Eggers only makes masterpieces, and I want 2023 to come now so that I can watch Nosferatu already.

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