Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson in The Lighthouse.
Robert Eggers' new psychodrama The Lighthouse—starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson—is, simply put, a pure work of art. The black and white film follows Winslow (Pattinson), a young man who travels to a small, isolated island to serve as a lighthouse keeper alongside Thomas Wake (Dafoe) in the late 19th century. Much like how Charles Boyer convinces Ingrid Bergman's character that she is losing her mind in the 1944 film Gaslight, Wake, the abusive, older keeper, slowly but surely begins to drive Winslow into madness, sending them both down a spiraling path of insanity. Through a combination of breathtaking cinematography, haunting ambient noise, Dafoe and Pattinson's raw performances, and a screenplay filled with existential dread, The Lighthouse allows the viewer to descend into madness with the characters. The psychological thriller, to great effect, leaves the viewer feeling disoriented and, crucially, claustrophobic.
This sense of claustrophobia is most clearly conveyed through the excellent cinematography, which constantly emphasizes that the two men are completely isolated on the remote island. Long shots depicting the island surrounded by the dark, tumultuous ocean frequently appear throughout the film, serving as reminders of the characters' seclusion. The interior shots, meanwhile, capture the overwhelming, blinding darkness within the lighthouse keepers' home, often utilizing the lines formed by the ceiling, walls, and even the sheer darkness itself to create even smaller frames for the shots, thereby increasing the sense of claustrophobia. The play on chiaroscuro—light and dark—is accentuated by the grayscale and use of candles, which brings the often disheveled faces of the characters to the forefront. Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that the closeups of faces—and extreme closeups of eyes, notably Dafoe’s—reinforce the feeling of isolation as well as the sense of constant surveillance. The sense of being watched is further paralleled by long shots depicting the silhouette of the maniacal lighthouse keeper surveilling Winslow from above, allowing the viewer to essentially step into Winslow’s shoes for the entirety of the film, while also emphasizing the power dynamic between the two characters
Add to this striking cinematography the eerie sound of a fog horn and the ebb and flow of a low drone and, soon enough, one feels as though they are being sucked into this sinister, otherworldly atmosphere. With these elements combined, it’s no surprise that one can’t help but feel that they themselves—like Winslow—are spiraling into madness; the recurring images of spiral staircases making this feeling all the more salient. As the film progresses, the line between reality and fiction becomes increasingly blurred, and the characters’ deepest nightmares come to fruition, often in the form of Lovecraftian creatures. What makes the film stand out as a masterpiece and modern classic is, in fact, its symbolism and subtle references to philosophy and literature. In many ways, the film is a conglomeration of defining elements from some of the most classic works of surrealism, existentialism, and horror from the 20th century. Parallels can be drawn between The Lighthouse and Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Lovecraftian horror, Dosyoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and certainly works by Kafka which capture such nightmarish worlds. Moreover, the film bears a quality similar to plays of the absurd, like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe’s dynamics are similar to those of char- acters in tragicomedies—Dafoe’s brilliant monologues in particular have a theatrical tone reminiscent of Shakespearean soliloquies.
The film is, in and of itself, an enigma, and nothing is quite as it seems. Yes, the plot may be about two lighthouse keepers on a remote island, but at its core it’s about human nature, isolation, and the search for meaning in one’s life. The Lighthouse has no shortage of symbols and metaphors (seagulls, mermaids, phallic symbolism, etc.) to analyze, but its most central one is, naturally, the lighthouse itself. Both characters are drawn to it like moths to a flame, and as the viewers descend into Eggers’ bleak and mystical world, they too find themselves longing to unlock the secret meaning behind the light.
Watching Eggers’ disorienting, disturbing, yet stunningly beautiful masterpiece will certainly leave the viewer at a loss for words. To fully appreciate the film, one must let themselves be pulled into this unsettling atmosphere that so perfectly encapsulates the blurring of reality and fiction and two men’s descent into madness.
Photo Credit: A24