Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, written by him and his brother Max, sees Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe playing two lighthouse keepers on a small remote island in the 1890s. Both Dafoe and Pattinson give very expressive, theatrical performances and chilling and intense character studies. The unrelenting nature of the location adds to the physicality of the performances, imbuing the film with a realness, whilst also heightening the harshness of the elements at a very base level. The bleak setting works in tandem with the incredible script. In Eggers’ BAFTA Guru talk he says, “The Lighthouse is almost void of story, it’s almost the same scene, over and over and over and over and over again with changing power dynamics”. The repetitiveness he refers to conveys the endlessness of the characters’ monotonous tasks, whilst also clouding our sense of time and forcing us to confront the metaphysical heart (the light) of the story. A maddening journey for us all.
Shot on black and white 35mm film with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the film feels of another time and authentically so. The narrow framing adds to the sense of doom and entrapment the characters are feeling, while the hard lighting adds an interrogative sense: the characters are “spilling [their] … beans”, not only through their words, but their actions and the things left unsaid. Atmosphere was a starting point for Eggers in his realisation of The Lighthouse. The era-specific, meticulous details are apparent from costume to set design, which shows the care the director and crew put into the piece. Shooting on location added tremendously to the ‘realness’, as the harrowing rain and the weather we see them bare is taxing and tonally apt at creating this creepy isolation.
There is a power dynamic at play in the film from the start. Thomas Wake finds fault with Thomas Howard’s ‘shoddy’ work and reproaches him incessantly. These clashes over duties escalate. At the root of their clash is the light and all it encompasses (knowledge, power, status, sexual release, desire). Howard yearns for it and endures strenuous labour to maintain it but Wake gatekeeps (contrary to the light-keeper’s guidebook delegations). Howard’s journey mirrors that of the Prometheus, who transgressed boundaries to steal the fire of knowledge on Mount Olympus, despite Zeus’ wishes (it’s knowledge we were not meant to possess, which is a breach of the natural order). In this tale, Prometheus stole the fire for humanity, a sacrificial act, whereas Howard’s motives in The Lighthouse feel egotistic. He violently takes the light, but at his own expense. Light is both something desired and disastrous – Howard completely loses himself to the captivating light and transforms into something sinister and falls down the staircase. Prometheus’ punishment is to be eaten alive by birds, to regenerate each day and suffer the same fate again forever, which is how things appear to end for Howard as well.
Meanwhile, Wake is a version of Proteus (Poseidon’s son and an early sea-God): an “Old Man of the Sea” (Homer), that has shape shifting tendencies. This is visually depicted through Wake’s tentacles during their fight scene.
Another symbolic motif is the menacing one-eyed seagull that taunts Howard (knocking on his window, pecking at him when he’s fallen). Wake says that the gull is a dead seaman reincarnated and that interfering with it brings a bad omen. Howard ignores this warning and graphically thrashes the seagull to death, colouring the cistern with black blood (due to it being b&w). The wind shifts at this point, and it cements the decline the lightkeepers are experiencing. Sound design is also important in highlighting the ambience. There’s a foghorn that blares at the beginning of the film and appears throughout to ground the film in this desolate space and aggravate us.
Another theme explored in the film is identity. We watch as Howard and Wake get to know each other, but cannot confirm if the way they present themselves, and their accounts of their lives before, are reliable. Howard initially goes by the alias Ephraim Winslow, because he wants a fresh start. Hiding his name adds to the mystery of the character – Wake surmises that Howard must be on the run from something. The fact they’re actually both named Thomas further adds to their fading identities. Being at the lighthouse is causing them both to lose their essence and delve into this chaotic madness. Glimpses of the supernatural show they’re becoming unhinged. Being cut off from humanity has led to their degeneration and a perversion. A morphing sea creature/ mermaid appears in the film, and is shown to be sexually appealing, as well as a source of comfort. There’s a sexual frustration, a voyeurism and a loneliness both experience as they try to navigate this demanding climate. In conjunction with this, there is an other-worldly, pre-determined sense that their endings are unavoidable. The lightkeeper Wake mentions that was driven to insanity before Howard replaced him, suggests the actions Howard does are the same as the keeper prior.
Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s (assumed) unfinished final work ‘The Lighthouse’, as well as a tale of two lighthouse keepers in Wales (both called Thomas), where one died and the other keeps the body hidden in fear he’ll be accused. The Lighthouse is a meticulously crafted, tonally eerie piece. The environment is unforgiving, the solitude maddening and there are scenes that call to question the reality of their experiences. This all builds to a destructive crescendo in which Howard breaks Wake’s rule. The film is a visceral, coarse piece that is meaningful and thought-provoking.
One thought on “The Lighthouse (2019) – Robert Eggers [SPOILERS]”
Well done 🙏❤️
LikeLiked by 1 person