It may be cliched to refer to beautiful-looking films with the phrase “every frame is a painting,” but in the case of Robert Eggers’ latest, The Lighthouse, many of the shots are picturesque. The introduction of our two characters, lighthouse keepers Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), looks like a stoic portrait. The reverse shot that follows, depicting the lighthouse on the black ocean, looks like a Gothic landscape piece.
The shot compositions in The Lighthouse are the icing on the cake that is this film about the mental disintegration of the two men, who find themselves stranded at the lighthouse when their relief never shows up. Eggers builds on the carefully-positioned camerawork of The Witch, being even more deliberate in pacing and camera placement. Everything in this film lingers. There is a sense that the mise-en-scene of every shot was toiled over, that every edit point was a deliberate and calculated choice.
What comes together from this attentiveness is a film whose Gothic beauty overtakes you. The atmosphere of this time and place is dynamic; it carries you into its current and drowns you in it. The film does not implicate you in the psychological torture that the characters experience, but it does steep you in its presence.
This psychological torment may come off to some as too silly (one irate monologue culminates in Winslow’s exclamation of disdain for Thomas’s incessant farting), to others as too bleak (the final shot is the prime example). But I found a rich text and subtext to the film’s driving conflict.
Much of it has to do with identity. Identity plays a crucial role in the plot and also functions as a central theme. The Lighthouse is a film about cabin fever (lighthouse fever?) and a contentious working relationship gone awry. But it is also about a man trying to survive in the working class world. Part of this struggle involves the altering of identity. This character’s identity, both textually and subtextually, is the driving force of the film. He feels the need to hide aspects of his identity, because if he does not than it would be very difficult to find and keep a job.
Subtextually—in two or three cases this subtext becomes overt text—this struggle is homoerotic in nature. We see glimpses of this homoeroticism in sexual fantasies involving a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman). The mermaid is a sexual object for Winslow, but she continues to be replaced by the image of Winslow’s male former workmate.
There is a psychoanalytic reading to be made of this unconscious altering of sexual fantasy, but a sociological reading could also be made from it. There is something to be said about the suppression of non-heterosexual identities in the working class world, where the dominant social codes of the blue collar being tied to a heterosexual masculinity forces Winslow to repress his sexual identity. Being set in 1890’s America, these forces of suppression are certainly more widespread than the blue collar sphere. But it would probably not be difficult to translate this repressive tendency to blue collar job sites of contemporary America (not all, but certainly some).
Not to get lost in the weeds of this one reading of the film (there are others to consider), but I found myself drawn to this reading more and more as the film escalated. The sexual imagery being as clear as it is, it was hard for me to avoid this reading. And I think that the angle complicates the film in ways that the text doesn’t on its own. The relationship between the two lighthouse keepers changes. The relationship between them and their work changes. The relationship between them and their environment changes. And I think these changes are to the film’s benefit.
The text-level escalation of psychological and physical states is intriguing in its own right, and Dafoe and Pattinson both tackle it with effective ferocity. Both actors give dizzying monologues, spouted out of drunken frustration, that are fantastic. Their divergent takes on their respective characters allows for multiple charged moments which are transfixing.
Perhaps my only qualm with The Lighthouse is its over-abundent score. At times, the score is just atmospheric enough. But when sequences escalate to a certain level, it can get over-bearing. Given just how moody and tense the film is based on its performances and cinematography, the reins could have been pulled on slightly when it comes to the soundtrack.
Otherwise, The Lighthouse is going to stand as one of my favorites of the year. It is a completely different monster than The Witch (my favorite horror movie of the last decade); it is more gnarled and weedy, drawing on the Gothic and the Expressionistic to display fraught psychological places.
But it shows a progression for Eggers, an incline towards becoming a master of the mood piece. His direction of the camera yields more fruitful imagery (cinematographer Jarin Blaschke also collaborated with him on The Witch). His direction of actors, particularly in their use of the vernacular language that he enjoys so much, remains promising. With just two features under his belt, Eggers has made a name for himself in “elevated” genre, and that is an exciting prospect to behold.
The Lighthouse: A
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)