Cannes 2019: The Lighthouse Review
Robert Eggers’ follow-up to 2016’s revelatory The Witch (or is that The VVitch?) is not only a better film than his acclaimed debut, but a complete original: a deranged, mud-caked freefall into near-indescribable insanity.
The first thing that strikes you about The Lighthouse is the way it looks. It’s shot in 35 with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio – a pretty ancient format that’s almost square. It is, as widely reported, in a striking monochrome that makes heavier use of black than it does white to oppressive effect. It was made using a custom lens filter that fills the frame with a sort of ageing cloud of diseased white matter.
The combined effect of all these decisions is that the film looks like a genuine artefact – a moving, warped photograph from the 1800’s. The special effects that open the film – a hulking dark ship smashing through the roaring sea, cloaked in mist – look like something out of a Georges Méliès film. It is at once anachronistic and deeply historical; mythical and modern; out of time and out of place.
The second thing that strikes you about The Lighthouse – and bear in mind that you’re still pretty delirious after the visuals – is the lighthouse itself. It’s perched on a wind-and-sea-blasted, primordial rock tearing through the remote ocean like a serrated tooth through bloody flesh. It’s a striking, unsettling and bleak setting that’s amplified threefold by Eggers’ scuzzy, forbidden aesthetic. Looming through the spiritual gloam, the stark tower imposes large upon the square frame, adjoined by a ramshackle, twisted, sloping hut that looks straight out of a vintage horror movie. This location is, perhaps more so than the films humans, a character in and of itself.
The third thing that strikes you about The Lighthouse, so hard that you can barely see, are its characters. Robert Pattinson’s mostly non-verbal, intensely physical performance as Ephraim Winslow is driven by dialogue and mannerisms taken from historical texts – Eggers used interview transcripts from farmers in the early 1800’s. By contrast, Willem Dafoe’s booming Thomas Wake is ridiculously, ornately verbose, and informed by authentic sayings of salty deep-sea sailors from 200 years ago.
Wake is a quasi-mythical creature: spouting torrential waves of nigh-on incomprehensible slang from his barnacled face. Winslow, who was just looking for a lucrative change of career, is caught in his endless stream of harsh, cold seawater and black seaweed. Pattinson stumbles around the island as if in a frightened daze, naked and shivering in the harsh, eviscerating winds from the endless ocean and blaring, inferno-like heat from the fires that keep the lighthouse working. These are two hyper-exaggerated, almost Cage-like performances that perfectly fit the unhinged material and rank among the actors’ best.
The knockout blow is delivered by madness. The first signs come when time begins to melt into a thick, indistinguishable sludge of irrelevance and unfathomability. Dafoe announces what seems like days into the narrative that two weeks have passed – what could’ve been another couple of days later it’s four. What feels like weeks after that it’s announced that the pair have only been there 2 days. Or is that 2 weeks? Or is that years? Or have they always been here? Or were they never here? Is everything a figment of the imagination? It’s enough to give anyone goosebumps – we’re just as marooned in space as Pattinson.
But then the hallucinations – you better hope they’re hallucinations – begin. Sirens wash up on the rocks, cracked and bleeding. Winslow begins to have sexual fantasies about the disturbing creatures – some of the scenes in The Lighthouse make The Shape of Water look like Finding Nemo. Odd, Lovecraftian shapes move over the island like wisps of mist – is that a sea monster? Something, undoubtedly, is in the light – Wake keeps the bulb under lock and key at all times, but is possessed by religious dedication to its wellbeing. There is doubt over the fate of the last ‘wickie’ whom Winslow has replaced.
The weather ramps in operatic extremity as the pair begin to turn on themselves in violent fits of prehistoric, instinctive paranoia. Wind, sea and rain pummel the island, eviscerating the keepers’ living quarters and making every small task a herculean effort. As our pratagonists spiral through a mental void further and further into unreachable, murderous madness, they’re caked in mud, piss, and shit, unable to carry out any activity without being strangled by the elements. Like a better, shorter, terrifying version of Hard to be a God, the human experience is reduced to filth.
By the time the infection has worn its course, and the existential, cosmic horror of the film’s final scenes has come to an end, we’re soaked, bedraggled, and exhausted. The Lighthouse is more of a delirious, physical ordeal than a movie in the conventional sense. Weird, plotless, and sporadically terrifying, it’s a film about losing one’s proverbial marbles that drops an atom bomb on those marbles within the first 30 minutes, leaving the last hour decoupled from any sense of reason or sanity. Be glad that this film exists.