Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) descend into a web of power plays and madness in Robert Eggers' The Lighthouse.

Men, Gods, Madness and The Sea: Robert Eggers Returns with The Lighthouse

by Steven Wandling

Filmmaker Robert Eggers arrived on scene seemingly out of nowhere with The Witch (2015), a bold and powerful period piece that was instrumental in kicking off the current folk horror revival happening in cinema. The Witch was a film that could be seen in several ways: a simple period piece about, you guessed it, a witch, but could also be seen as so much more. The film only gets more delicious in layers of meaning with each viewing. On another level, it’s a film about female empowerment and an upheaval of puritanism and patriarchal order to tell a truly Satanic fairy tale. The Witch was true to the period and effective beyond most first time filmmakers, to say the least. Eggers new followup The Lighthouse can easily be seen as the flip side of The Witch‘s coin, a companion piece to that about men as much as his first film was about women. The Lighthouse, like The Witch, is not only open to interpretation but also contains layers of meaning. It is a simple film about two lighthouse keepers going crazy and waging psychological warfare on one another. But like The Witch, it’s also so much more.

The two men in question, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Iphram Winslow (Robert Pattinson), drive each other to the point of madness throughout the run time of the film. Wake is the actual lighthouse keeper while the younger Winslow is under his command. And boy, does Wake exploit that situation! A true test of anyone’s character is to give them any sort of power and see what they do with it, and Wake is an absolute monster to the young and pensive Winslow. There’s a purposeful goading and territorial pissing match that Wake starts pretty much from the get-go. That, along with his incessant farting and zealotry about his lighthouse duties, create a sense of unease between the two men that only escalates throughout the rest of the film until it finally spills over like all those beans mentioned in the trailer.

The lighthouse itself is as much a character as Wake or Winslow in Robert Eggers new film.

That isn’t to say that just because Wake is an abusive, disgusting, old lunatic that Winslow isn’t guarding secrets of his own. He’s a lost soul of sorts, drifting through the world from job to job without any real ambition or firm footing in society. Pattinson’s ability to go toe-to-toe with Dafoe in The Lighthouse is truly a performance that needs to be seen. Winslow provides the story with a first hand look at a true descent into insanity brought on by Wake’s gaslighting, the claustrophobia of the trapped setting of the lighthouse itself, and a darkness already embedded deep within the young assistant. Wake is already seemingly quite mad and boisterous when we first meet him, but his madness is something that he owns and utilizes as a weapon against his young ward.

The Lighthouse is shot in beautiful black and white that really brings to life the period of the film (the 1890s). The lighthouse is the other main character in the film, akin to the Overlook Hotel in The Shining (1980). Eggers is already known for being obsessive over attention to detail when it comes to accurately recreating a period. The Witch was lauded for its historical accuracy and The Lighthouse is no different. The film feels both of its time and ultimately ageless. This film could have come out a half century ago or a decade from now. It would still speak to the same truths about men, isolation, and madness. That’s one of the keys to a truly great piece of any art, the ability to withstand the test of time. No one is going to look back at The Lighthouse years from now and think ‘good flick, but it’s so 2019.’

Winslow and Wake descend into the depths of madness together in The Lighthouse.

Shot on 35mm black and white footage and presented in an aspect ratio rarely seen outside the early sound era (1:19:1), Eggers creates an experience for the viewer that looks and feels just as claustrophobic and desolate as Wake and Winslow feel. The almost perfect square looking format is also very disorienting in a way that serves the film well, also matching the viewer’s mindset to that of the characters and their action on screen. The look and feel of The Lighthouse is designed to provide that aforementioned authentic feeling experience for the viewer, and Eggers pulls it off. All the ingredients come together perfectly to make the film something that is wholly unique and almost unrecognizable in today’s modern movie landscape.

The Lighthouse is being classified as a horror film, and I’m not one to wage war over what is or isn’t any type of genre, but this movie doesn’t neatly fit into any one. Is it scary? Yes. It’s also surprisingly hilarious. The dialogue is interspersed with gallows humor throughout and there are many moments between Wake and Winslow that are genuinely laugh out loud funny. It falls much more into the weird fiction category from the likes of Arthur Machen and H.P. Lovecraft than it does into any kind of straight horror. There’s no jump scares to be had here, but there is plenty of unsettling tension to spare that leads to a grisly otherworldy climax, leaving viewers wondering what exactly they have just witnessed. That’s precisely the way Eggers wants it as the questions posited in life are always more interesting than any answer, and closure is something rarely afforded to anyone.

Winslow becomes just as fixated on the seemingly divine presence of the light as Wake throughout the film.

Greek mythology is also a huge part of The Lighthouse‘s DNA but it’s really hard to get into exactly what myths are explored without spoiling the film. That’s what Robert Eggers does best: intertwining all of these elements from classic mythology, folklore, weird fiction, history, and cinema to tell something entirely new. As an artist, he isn’t trying to necessarily make statements, he’s trying to communicate something deeper about human nature to the world, and in this case specifically, the barbaric nature of men. Men’s obsessions over power, dominance, titles and what happens when unchecked masculinity goes to war with itself is at the very core of The Lighthouse. The men in the film, like so many of us, sow the seeds for their own downfall and destruction, often with a gleeful relish. So much of The Lighthouse is open for interpretation, but that much isn’t.

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