The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse ★★★★½

"Why'd ya spill yer beans?"

The Lighthouse (2019) begins on an ominous note, with two lone figures silently making their way on a boat to a lighthouse on an isolated island. A young man named Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and a grizzled old sea dog named Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) cut shadowy figures as they traipse to the ramshackle house that will be their home for the next four weeks. Thus begins a dizzying decent into madness that will have both Ephraim (which means "being fruitful" in Hebrew) and the audience questioning whether what they are experiencing is real.

The first two things that will be apparent is the boxy 1.19:1 aspect ratio that director Robert Eggers chose for the film, as well as the heavy contrast black-and-white color grading. These two things combine to give the film a silent film era aesthetic that is only further solidified by the many sequences of the film that are without dialogue. The aspect ratio reinforces the claustrophobic and insular atmosphere of the narrative, and it mirrors the oppressive feelings that the characters have for each other because they are forced to work in close quarters. In this way their emotional anxiety is conveyed to the viewer as well.

With Pattinson and Dafoe being the only two major characters in the film, they are the focus of the story and luckily, both of them put in spectacular performances. Dafoe's lines feel as though they were written by Herman Melville himself, and he gives several mesmerizing monologues that are simultaneously rousing and terrifying. There is something about the way that Dafoe's craggy and lined face catches the light that transforms it into a demonic visage. Pattinson holds his own as well, and his depiction of a man slowly losing his sanity is deliciously manic and over-the-top. Surprisingly, much of The Lighthouse is hilarious with perfectly timed humorous bits to relieve the constantly mounting tension.

The most intriguing aspect of the film is that it appears to be functioning entirely as a metaphor, and with an unreliable narrator it is hard to discern what is real and what is fake. The main inspiration seems to be the Greek myth of Prometheus, the god who created man from clay. Prometheus stole the knowledge of fire from the Gods and gave the gift of that knowledge to humanity. As punishment he was bound to a rock and an eagle sent by Zeus would eat his liver. The liver would regrow each day only to be continually eaten by birds. This tale of Prometheus has been given a sea legend retooling with Ephraim taking the role of Prometheus and Thomas becoming the jealous Zeus. Thomas is covetous of the light in the lighthouse going to bask in its glow every night and he won't let Ephraim see it. Ephraim makes it his goal to "steal the light" as it were, with the light taking the place of the fire in the original tale.

What is at the top of the lighthouse? Why is Ephriam having disturbing visions? The film can be read numerous ways and it never leans too heavily into any one single definitive conclusion. There is some incredibly striking imagery and it might turn off some viewers who don't like a lot of symbolism in their films. There are a few points where the story stalls a bit, especially in the middle, but for the most part it goes along at a great pace. Those who are looking for some cinematic craziness and ambitiousness will most likely love The Lighthouse.