With The Witch, Robert Eggers cemented himself as a director to follow. It was a story that was told in an artfully crafted way, and one that brought the audience into the slow-paced horror of a small family on new land.
It was a concept that was divisive, but for those whom it worked for, it was beloved. His new film, The Lighthouse—now premiering at TIFF 2019—is a very similar beast. It is a work of genius that may be hard for many to latch onto and enjoy to its fullest despite an expertly crafted script, masterful acting, and a wonderfully engaging descent into madness.
Set on an island off the coast of Maine, The Lighthouse is the tale of two lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson). Stranded due to bad weather, their sanity and patience slowly break down as they obsess over their past and the very light they are tasked to maintain. While it is a simple story, it is the method in which it unfolds that crafts an engaging, difficult, and truly mesmerizing film.
The use of a 4:3 aspect ratio combined with a rich in contrast black & white 35mm film stock, craft a film that is stunning to look at. Every frame on screen is filled with a level of detail rarely seen in modern film making. The use of contrast paints a dark, disturbing, and often tragic world, one where the slow descent into alcohol and myth seem plausible and even understandable as the runtime counts down.
Yet, even with the level of balance always present on the screen, The Lighthouse does manage to be truly funny at times. The reactions to the mundane are pushed to absurdist levels, breaking the often palpable tension and giving a much-needed balance to what could have been a dire slog in the hands of a lesser director. Robert Eggers manages some expertly timed moments of brevity that resulted in moments of audible laughter in the theatre at TIFF. His comedic directing of the script depicts just how vast the range of this new filmmaker truly is, making me even more excited to see his career evolve.
While firmly planted in the horror genre, The Lighthouse is an odd piece of genre fiction. It works as much a character study in grief, loss, and guilt, as it does one of supernatural terror. The film forces the audience to question everything they are seeing. From the actions of characters to dialogue sequences, Eggers never makes it easy to understand, but it is this challenge that works to draw the audience in, forcing them to question their own concepts of rationality and reason.
Though it could be viewed as a straight descent into lunacy, Eggers adds just enough maritime myth and lore into the mix to make audiences question what exactly just unfolded before them. From out of the blue dream sequences to some horrific images of brutality and violence, The Lighthouse demands attention and engagement from its audience. Scenes of potential cosmic horror will make you question your sanity—this is a film that is as rewarding as it is challenging.
Even with the questioning of reality, the themes of superstitions and lore are ever-present in the characters on screen. They truly believe in the consequence of minor actions with each misstep, making them question if it is a chance for retribution. The Lighthouse is imbued to its core with the legends of the sea. Allusions to Prometheus, St. Elmo’s Fire, and Poseidon, and myths all the way up to 19th-century are used to a masterful degree to drag the film's characters deeper into a delusion that slowly threatens to overtake their last breaths of sanity.
On a four week shoot with what looked like a brutal range, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson's portrayal of the Ill-fated lighthouse keepers are captured masterfully. These are portrayals that will linger with you long after the credits roll.
The Lighthouse is destined to be a divisive film. It is one of the most stunning works of fiction to hit screens in 2019 and brings mesmerizing performances out of its main cast, yet it remains potentially even more challenging than Eggers's first film, The Witch. For a sophomoric outing, it is a masterpiece of the horror genre, and while it never makes things easy, those that manage to stick throughout the runtime will be rewarded with a memorable filmic experience that won't be soon forgotten.