By Afra Nariman
The Lighthouse (2019)
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe
Stranded on a remote island in the 1890s, two lighthouse keepers struggle to maintain their sanity as their minds begin to unravel and their humanity questioned.
One phrase I would use to describe The Lighthouse would be that it is a portrayal of madness and insanity; a simple plot that develops into an unpredictably strange and exhilarating sequence of mysterious circumstances. The first thing you notice is the stunning cinematography and fitting visuals. The entire film is shown to us through a squared screen, resembling a window. The intimate camerawork can make it feel very personal at times. From the very beginning, the film exhibits a level of intimacy through this windowed screen that makes you feel like you’re right there. Often times, the camera moves slowly from scene to scene, depicting the confined setting of the story and playing into the desired mood of the film: mysterious. The mood is controlled partly by the camerawork, and partly by the accompanying visuals and sounds. During intense moments, there are close up shots of the characters, and then the camera zooms out as a transition out of those intense moments. The constant sound of the foghorn, which begins practically right away and continues throughout the entire film also helps to set the tone. The presence of fog throughout, and then the storm that develops, in congruence with the fact that the film is shot in black and white, all come together to make us feel what Eggers, the director, wants us to feel, without the need of a word being spoken.
For the first 7-8 minutes of the film, there is no talking at all. Rather, it relies on everything that I mentioned above to introduce us to the film, its mood and to prepare us for what’s coming. The silence is finally broken by Defoe’s character farting with no reaction. The first words spoken are when Defoe raises his drink and gives a strange toast. For the sake of this review, I will refer to each character by referring to their corresponding actor’s name. Speaking of the actors, Robert Pattinson and Willem Defoe were absolutely brilliant. Pattinson’s commitment to character was especially impressive. Their performances were virtually perfect and definitely unforgettable.
Through A+ production and acting, Eggers made a simple plot extraordinarily interesting. The film worked with only 3 subjects: 2 men and a lighthouse. By creating a mysterious aura around the movie, Eggers allows it to take on a life of its own. The story is unpredictable and keeps you on the edge of your seat. It begins to really take off when the never-ending storm begins. Although Defoe warns Pattinson early on that killing a seagull is bad luck, Pattinson winds up aggressively pummeling one in a moment of fear and anger towards the sea bird. Coincidently, the winds immediately begin to change, signifying a turning point in the direction of the film. Shortly after, the storm hits, and they become stranded on “the rock,” with nowhere to go.
Throughout the film there are scenes full of strange activities/jobs that the two men have to do as lighthouse keepers. With the added music in the background, these scenes feed into the overarching mystery that takes over the entire film. Some of the scenes also depict a level of awkwardness, especially in many of the characters’ early interactions. Their constant maddening reality is interrupted only during the instances of momentary calm that occurs while they’re eating dinner. Often times in real life, on our craziest days, dinner serves as our moment of calm. The same was true in this film. Each meal begins with a strange and fitting toast that sets the tone. It is over dinner that Defoe and Pattinson’s characters get to know each other and bond over stories of their past, their tribulations and their hopes for the future. As the film progresses, and their sanity deteriorates, these dinners become less and less civil. One specifically notable example is after dinner one night, when Pattinson’s character is excessively drunk and expresses his desire to eat a steak after all this time of being trapped on “the rock.” Taking offense as the cook, Defoe insists that Pattinson admit he enjoys his cooking. Pattinson refuses. Defoe proceeds to express himself through a deep, mythologically extravagant monologue:
"Hark Triton, hark! Bellow, bid our father the Sea King rise from the depths full foul in his fury! Black waves teeming with salt foam to smother this young mouth with pungent slime, to choke ye, engorging your organs til' ye turn blue and bloated with bilge and brine and can scream no more - only when he, crowned in cockle shells with slitherin' tentacle tail and steaming beard take up his fell be-finned arm, his coral-tine trident screeches banshee-like in the tempest and plunges right through yer gullet, bursting ye - a bulging bladder no more, but a blasted bloody film now and nothing for the harpies and the souls of dead sailors to peck and claw and feed upon only to be lapped up and swallowed by the infinite waters of the Dread Emperor himself - forgotten to any man, to any time, forgotten to any god or devil, forgotten even to the sea, for any stuff for part of Winslow, even any scantling of your soul is Winslow no more, but is now itself the sea!"
To this, Pattinson’s character responds:
"Alright, have it your way. I like your cookin'."
This is also an example of the quirky, blunt comedy that is found from time to time throughout the film. Even the sort of comedy that we’re given in The Lighthouse, is made up of unexplainable randomness that adds to the mysterious madness unfolding on the screen.
Pattinson’s character especially, begins to lose his mind as the days go by. He completely loses his sense of space, time and identity. We’re given the notion that much of what he sees and experiences is just a figment of his imagination. Just as he can’t trust what he sees, we can’t trust what is real or hallucinated on the screen. His mind slowly continues to consciously unravel. The movie tells the story of what happens when you’re isolated and forced into a confined space for a prolonged period of time. As tensions rise in confined spaces, the mind begins to deteriorate and unravel. At one point Pattinson says to Defoe, who has been a lighthouse keeper for much of his adult life:
In this quote, there is a philosophical indication of socialization being a part of a human being’s essence. Greek philosopher, Aristotle, claimed that human beings were “social animals” and needed to socialize with other human beings in order to be happy, or at peace. In The Lighthouse, we are shown the strife of isolation and loneliness through a story of struggle for power and sanity. Without human life to interact with, the two loners, forced to be confined together, lose their sense of humanity. They repeatedly toast for relief, but never get it.
The Lighthouse explores the literary conflicts of man vs. man, man vs. nature, and mind vs. matter. The psychological experience of isolation takes it’s toll on the two characters as they grapple with their circumstances, hoping to hold on to their sanity. The film’s simple plot, enlivened by incomparable production and epic acting, becomes a twisted tale of madness and mystery. It keeps you on the edge of your seat, anticipating what will come next. It can be uncomfortable to watch at times, but that’s what makes it such a hauntingly beautiful film. The experience of watching The Lighthouse is reminiscent of the events taking place on the screen: mysterious, tense and unpredictable. A one of a kind film. When it comes to horror/thrillers, it doesn’t get much better, if at all, than The Lighthouse.