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New England, sometime in the late 1800’s. A thick fog obscures all that we can see. A foghorn calls. Waves swell. A tiny steamer ship pushes through the silver curtain and disappears from sight. Two men with grizzled beards and worn out faces watch as it goes. They’re here to work as lighthouse keepers for two weeks. Where here is, nobody knows. Might be near the coast, might be miles out to sea. The foghorn calls again.
And there we are. Trapped with our two lighthouse keepers played by Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, both giving the best performances of their careers. The less that is told about the story, the better. Not because it would spoil anything, because an argument could be made that there isn’t anything to spoil, but because the distressing mood and dreamlike nature of the tiny island are best left experienced instead of explained. Equal parts mariners rhyme, ancient myth, and horror story, THE LIGHTHOUSE defies expectation as much as it adheres to tradition.
The location doesn’t matter because our leads yearn to be lost, and time is irrelevant because the world itself has passed us by. The film lives trapped in a waking folktale, much the same as director Robert Eggers previous beauty, THE VVITCH. It has the crackling energy and haunting melancholy of a campfire yarn, vaguely remembered throughout the ages as if it had no beginning or end, just snippets of things someone heard here or there, all pieced together with the logic of a nightmare and now captured on film.
The titular lighthouse itself is the third character in the story, and what a terrifying beauty it is. Sitting on a forlorn island, it is neither majestic nor sad. It is everlasting, a part of the scenery, uncertain if it has sat there three years or three centuries. The men dutifully work the facade and re-apply paint, but you wouldn’t know it needed it anyway, considering how Eggers shoots the frightful thing. It looms in the background of every shot when the characters are outside, and the inside is a monstrous living cathedral which brings to mind the story of Jonah and the whale. The film is framed in a dated 1.19:1 aspect ratio, reminiscent of German impressionist films, which allows for every interior to feel cramped horizontally while stretched vertically. The camera hangs low at each turn, the actors gaunt faces distorted by the askew light sources littered around the interior. Even the geography feels similar to that of THE CABINET OF DOCTOR CALIGARI, where the world cascaded upon itself in angles it was never supposed to.
To emphasize the aspect ratio, THE LIGHTHOUSE is filmed in black and white on old film stock, utilizing old camera lenses that haven’t been used in a near century, and the actors speak in thick New England accents peppered with dialect that has passed into history generations ago. The result has left some viewers demanding the film be released with subtitles. That would be a mistake. The less you understand of normal communication the better. Eggers has built a film so stripped to the essentials that it could be viewed without any dialog whatsoever, and still understood through body language alone. There’s a scene where Willem Dafoe, upon losing his temper, subjects Pattinson to a torrent of ancient cursing, and I couldn’t understand half the words he was saying, which made the already intense scene absolutely terrifying. I felt removed from all semblance of civilization and tossed into a maelstrom of drunken terror fueled by machismo and loneliness. In a film filled to the brim with emotion, scenes like that stand out as soaring feats of cinema, the kind that you’ll remember for days afterwards.
As the film settles into the repetition of the mundane nature of their daily tasks, it becomes reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON, where the detailed, methodical act of doing anything was done in ceremony to the slow, excessive lifestyle the characters lived. Here that same repetition is torn to shreds and dragged into the dirt. It becomes a chapel for the uncleansed who harbor in them lust and violence, often intertwined, and Eggers repeats the acts so many times that we are numbed to them. In the background we hear the constant foghorn to the point that it becomes music. The totality of this film is one of the most accurate and horrifying depictions of mental illness ever put on screen. When anyone asks what it is like to have severe anxiety and depression, you can point to this and they’ll have an understanding.
It isn’t all doom and gloom though, as THE LIGHTHOUSE is very funny when it isn’t menacing. Pattinson and Dafoe find poetry in their drunken gibberish, and the film ebbs and flows between dry banter, stupored bickering, and belligerent intimacy in a way that is hard to identify which of these came first. Just as you believe all energy has been spent, the men are up in arms once again, at any given point close to consummating their hateful romance inside their ancient phallus, or destroying it all in blind fury because someone insulted the others cooking. A seagull shows up to deliver the best animal performance in a film yet. And there is something truly mesmerizing about hearing anyone curse another to be taken by Poseidon himself.
THE LIGHTHOUSE is a vision. It’s a piece of bravura filmmaking from a horror auteur who now has two masterpieces to his name, both utterly unique. The fact that it’s even being released widely in theaters is a small miracle. Go see it, and tell your friends to see it. Even if it doesn’t end up being your thing, you’ll be richer for having experienced something you’ll probably never see again.
With any luck it’ll stay in your memory long enough, that one day you’ll tell others about it around a campfire, and start the tradition all over again.
THE LIGHTHOUSE opens in cinemas on 15.11.2019.