When The Lighthouse finished, I was left bewildered. What had I just witnessed? Certainly, something momentous had occurred, but for the life of me, I couldn’t put my finger on it. The film is replete with innuendo. Its suggestions so cryptic, its barrelchested exterior so bald-faced. On its surface, Robert Eggers’ newest opus can be likened to his debut film The Witch. Both peddle in isolation, superstition, and paranoia. But where the supernatural elements plod its way towards the conclusion of The Witch, The Lighthouse sees Eggers pull back at these ingredients just enough to keep us guessing at the true nature of this macabre story.
Shot in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the framing immediately evokes a sense of claustrophobia and isolation, central themes in the story. Black and white 35mm film is used to create a facade of shadows that lends to an uneasiness throughout the movie. Much like The Witch, before it, there is a voyeuristic quality to watching an Eggers film that’s not so different from peeping through a keyhole.
At the center of the movie are two lighthouse keepers, Ephraim Winslow, a closemouthed nomad, looking to create a new life for himself, and Thomas Wake, an artless oaf, who is quite possessive of the lighthouse he mans. The property must be tended to 24 hours a day. The men split the work. Wake is to handle the daytime duties, while Ephraim is left fumbling about in the dark. The monotony of the day to day work is a problem. To hear Wake tell it, the previous work hand went stir-crazy and had hallucinations of merpeople and death.
To pass the time, the two men drink themselves into nightly stupors. Arguments break out, tempers uncork, and vulnerabilities are weaponized. This lighthouse is not a place for soft men, yet they are broken and troubled nonetheless. They usually wake up disorientated and unaware of the previous night’s intemperance. This cycle of working to exhaustion and drinking to full-throated belligerence continues unabated for the majority of the film. Until it doesn’t.
I don’t necessarily believe you are supposed to enjoy The Lighthouse, so much as appreciate its audacity. A film that hoists so much onto the shoulders of Pattinson and Dafoe. Our antagonists vacillate in mood and temperament so wildly that less committed performances would drag this movie into oblivion.
Whether or not you find The Lighthouse frightening is a different matter. After all, The Lighthouse purports itself to be a horror movie. One filled with guile and resentment. Things aren’t what they seem, and there’s a sense of foreboding malice in every exchange. Over the course of the film, the two men consider events they previously thought to have taken place. Contradictions are met and ignored, lingering in the air just long enough to feel like there is some truth being kept from us.
The center of this mystery surrounds the light at the top of the tower. Wake sneaks to the chamber that houses the light and seems to be engaging in some form of debauchery. Winslow’s view is obscured to the goings-on in the light chamber, but his curiosity is getting the better of him, so his attempts to get inside are getting more desperate as the film wears on.
This game of cat and mouse alongside the previously mentioned revelry makes up the bulk of The Lighthouse. It’s a film that’s hard to pin down. There are inklings of Kubrick in every scene. I found it both engaging and terrifying, but ultimately, if you don’t find the leads persuasive, I can see the illusion breaking.
There will be a large portion of the audience that finds The Lighthouse decidedly tedious. Eggers and his brother Max — who shares writing credit — do not share this concern. But perhaps there is something to be said about accessibility. The Lighthouse is a commitment of attention, but it shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of the viewer to feel engaged with the work. As a result, I can see many people walking away scratching their heads, wondering if they wasted their time.
In the end, The Lighthouse left me with so many questions. Like the enigmatic work Eggers draws inspiration from, once curiosities are satiated, new ones take their place. It’s a somewhat unknowable film that demands multiple viewings. In a year where we’ve seen movies like Ad Astra address masculinity with a murmur of hope. The Lighthouse, in contrast, confronts this same question with a plangent cry. The day of the boorish alpha male is dead, and we must riot.