“The Lighthouse”: Film Review

Painfully pleasurable and utterly epic, this gothic tale of one-eyed seagulls and men going mad is all crashing waves, booming foghorns, and stark, crepuscular landscapes.

“The Lighthouse” is an escalation, rather than a descent, into hell, and darkly funny. One scene after the other leads to events that one would rather not see happen. Recoil and appalled groan turn into a dry chuckle.

A grizzled, bearded old lighthouse keeper and his itinerant helper arrive on an isolated island.  Supply ships are far and few between, and when the weather turns to bad – and it always does – then the island is forgotten for perhaps another half year or two.

The men know nothing of each other, and it soon transpires that it would be much better if this were to remain so. Alas. As the old man resentfully chides his subordinate, in an accent redolent of sea shanties, ghost ships and elusive whales – why did he have to spill his beans?

The remark is reminiscent of Walter Matthau’s gruffness towards Jack Lemmon in “The Odd Couple”, and Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, respectively as old salt and restless labourer, do channel that dynamic, with its comic undertones – except that here, the darkness, grime and menace are cranked up to the hilt, and the men’s language unfurls in lengthily extended, rich, delectable invective. Cabin fever descends, and no good can come of this, only greater degrees of insanity.

That cabin of insanity is the tight square frame of the images, containing the men in a cell from which there seems no escape. Shot by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke in the almost square 1.19 : 1 aspect ratio of early films, on orthochromatic 35mm film stock, and at times using a Petzval lens, the film becomes a faux-archaic artefact, in the same way that the old lighthouse keeper is a faux mariner, a wannabe sailor but earthbound – just you wait and see! – man.  And both the old man and the film itself – the film stock, the physical object through which light shines out and tells the story – are hungry for intense light, yet produce areas of intense black.

Director Eggers’ world building here is remarkable. Dialogue based on meticulous research, recreating and riffing on language and accents now long gone, layers and layers of literary and visual references, and a custom-built lighthouse allegedly capable of projecting light 16 miles into the distance… And directing two remarkable and very different actors in an intensely hallucinatory folie à deux.

Myths abound, pell-mell. The ghosts of St Elmo, Prometheus, Odysseus, and many others, intermingle and mash up. They are spirits that hover around the men and infuse their fallible, weak minds with more poison than the men can themselves imbibe, as their food rations diminish and they resort to drinking pure spirits for nourishment.

Overwhelmed by yearning, lust, death, dirt, bellyache and a booming foghorn that punctuates every thought, what the men have left is language and light, and then soon, not even that.

Directed by Robert Eggers
Written by Robert Eggers and Max Eggers
Cinematography Jarin Blaschke
With Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson and Valeriia Karaman

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