The upswing of the horror genre in recent years can be attributed to a handful of writer/directors that have recaptured the terror of past masterpieces. And leading the charge of this chilling resurgence is none other than Robert Eggers. After his cinematic debut, The VVitch, Eggers made a name for himself as a master of modern horror. Now, four years later, we’ve been gifted with another instant horror classic: The Lighthouse.
Robert Eggers is known for his period piece narratives, and The Lighthouse is no different. At the tail end of the 1800s, two lighthouse keepers become stranded on a remote New England island during a disastrous storm. While marooned, the two men struggle to withstand the ensuing paranoia and insanity of their claustrophobic and cataclysmic conditions.
Before even mentioning the performances, this film is amazing simply for its use of genre aesthetics and beautiful inspiration from works of the past. Eggers makes it apparent that he is pulling heavily from his German expressionist influences. Films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu (which Eggers was previously slated to make) crept their way into every scene of The Lighthouse. The thick shadows, harsh lighting, formidable angles and moody tone made Eggers’ sophomore effort a masterclass in aesthetically powerful filmmaking.
Writer/director Robert Eggers also takes us back to the past by implementing the use of a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which in itself, plays a major role in the storytelling of The Lighthouse. For decades, audiences have become accustomed to the widescreen and Cinemascope ratios that take up the entire screen from left to right. Eggers instead chooses to change the size of the frame to resemble more of a square, and with that, comes an immediate sense of claustrophobia. This feeling stems from the fact that at the core of The Lighthouse, is a story built from isolation. While living in their confined quarters, the remoteness of the island puts in motion the psychological torment that the two main characters can not, and will not, escape. They are cramped, alone, and essentially hopeless; by making the size of the screen smaller, the “walls” can literally cave in on the main characters and enhance this feeling ten fold.
The tandem of Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson was nothing short of exhilarating. At every turn, their odd chemistry became toxic and a curse-riddled argument was bound to take place. Dafoe as “Thomas Wake” — the old, sea ferring lighthouse keeper (or “wickie”) — was absolutely brilliant. His grasp on the poetic dialect of an 1800s seaman and the tics he brought with it was so impressive to watch. Pattinson also has a peak performance in The Lighthouse as the younger wickie, “Ephraim Winslow.” His character is plagued with a mix of lethal curiosity, sexual frustration, and a foggy memory— a very dangerous cocktail. Winslow and Wake’s relationship is so contentious, yet so romantic once they become drunk. They sing at the top of their lungs, destroy their house with their wild dancing, and drunkenly spout with one another while on the floor. Their friendship feels so genuine, but seedlings of dishonesty and subtle sexual tension completely undermine the joy of the cramped household.
Winslow and Wake don’t know each other. But, once they begin to drink, some secrets spill from them both. The wickies share some truths, as well as a few lies, which muddies their already cloudy view of one another. Everything about their relationship is uncertain, and in that confusion, the two men absolutely lose their minds. This confusion also brings rise to some sexual tension. While Winslow is violently and unabashedly horny, Wake is longing for a connection. His life as a wickie has left him lonely; and, instead of being outwardly melancholy, Wake hardens his heart to the idea of anything resembling a relationship. This subplot is played subtly, but adds so much depth to both the story and its ambiguous characters.
The Lighthouse is a film that can be unpacked for hours and hours on end. Whether it’s potent Greek symbolism or layered sea lore, there’s always something to dissect. With beautiful imagery, engulfing sound design, and the raucous duo that was Dafoe and Pattinson— the Oscars will have quite the dilemma this awards season.