For sailors lost at sea, a lighthouse is hope; for Daniel Defoe and Robert Pattinson, however, the lighthouse is precisely the site of their shipwreck. The Lighthouse is a maritime nightmare, a descent – but descent is not the word: a fall, a spectacular fall off a rocky cliff – into madness. The two miserable protagonists drown in pouring rain and especially in alcohol, and we follow them closely, inebriated ourselves by the extraordinary cinematography, the hypnotising music, and the rabid editing.
Tom Wake (Defoe), is an old seadog kept ashore by a limp leg, condemned to spend his days on a black rock working as a wickie, the caretaker and operator of a lighthouse. Under his command is the newly arrived Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), who was once a lumberjack and now does anything that pays. To his terrible luck, he has chosen this job. He soon realises that he’s been hired not only as an assistant, but also as a housekeeper and buffoon. In fact, Winslow appears to be doing everything while Wake merely spends his time in the light chamber, often naked. The only truce between these lonely men comes at night, during dinner, when Wake practically forces Winslow to chat and drink a liquor that must have more in common with engine degreaser than with vodka. Wake and Winslow do come closer, little by little, but their interaction, even when funny or endearing, is always tense, as that of two prickly beasts who, at any moment, could rip each other’s throats with their teeth.
It’s quite impressive what these two actors have managed to do. The salty seaman, Tomas Wake, complete with hat, smoking pipe and (almost) wooden leg, along with his grunts and sea jargon, is a character that in the hands of a lesser actor could have easily become a cartoon. But Defoe is Defoe and with the clay handed to him he sculpts a man that at times resembles captain Ahab, at times Neptune himself. (To pull us back to earth, though, Eggers has given him one extra feature: constant farts). Robert Pattinson, on the other hand, solidifies his status as one of the best character actors of his generation (I know, who would have thought?) with his Ephraim Winslow who is at times enigmatic, at times vulnerable, at times a burning ball of rage, and always pure anguish.
Equally impressive is the script Robert Eggers and his younger brother, Max Eggers, have crafted. The Eggers thoroughly researched sea literature specific to that day and region, particularly through the works of Sarah Orne Jewett. The resulting dialogue that Wake and Winslow spew at each other is Melville, is Coleridge, and is rich enough in alliterations to give Shakespeare frisson.
A less ambitious, less talented director, would have made The Lighthouse as a perfectly adequate theatre-like film, because it fulfils all the requirements – a single location, two characters, first-rate dialogue – but Robert Eggers is interested in cinema, pure and hard cinema, so he has taken this elements and with a prodigious eye, he has followed the streaks and found gold.
Eggers turns again to cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and film editor Louise Ford, with whom he had previously worked in The Witch. Recorded in black and white, 35mm film, and with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, The Lighthouse consciously evokes the cinema of Murnau or Lang. German expressionism has its clear mark here, with a light that examines grimaces, that searches for grotesque furrows in the faces, and projects ominous shadows in the crooked walls and ceilings. There’s also some traces of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings and Edward Weston’s photographs (especially that one of a seashell spiral which almost seems to be the blueprint of the lighthouse’s spiral staircase). The editing, meanwhile, is extremely modern, with a foot in Un Chien Andalou and another one in the future, as best exemplified by a masturbatory sequence that could easily produce a fainting spell.
Nevertheless, the most interesting occurs there where Eggers parts ways with his influences, for his movie has nothing of the distorted sceneries of expressionism. On the contrary, ever since The Witch Eggers has made clear he’s obsessed with authenticity. In The Lighthouse, for instance, filming took place in Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia, where the weather was just as horrible as the one on screen (three storms stroke the film crew); the clothes wore by Defoe and Pattinson are made with thick wool and pig skin according to literature from the era; and the lighthouse was built expressly for the movie. But for Eggers this historical accuracy is not a pathway towards realism, but a means to make the supernatural seem entirely and chillingly truthful.
The combined effect, crowned by Mark Korven’s music, crowded with horns that bring to mind the grave bellow of the ships, is a mesmeric journey which is certainly horror, but a horror always ambiguous and that deep down is nothing but a human horror – and specifically male. The fear that haunts lone men when confronted with themselves, with their ghosts, their hunger for power, their lust. Particularly their lust. Because in The Lighthouse, as in the horror stories found in folktales and myths, fear is bound with guilt and sexual desire. Sex (or the lack thereof) is mixed like taint and blood in the liquor Winslow and Wake drink desperately.
That is why the plot is so sparse – not because it is superficial, but rather because just a couple symbols, just a few scattered references to Greek mythology and sea-men superstitions are enough for us to follow the roots of this story and find they dig deep, down to the strata where archetypes sleep.
There are scenes in The Lighthouse (one in particular) that will remain with me as long as I have memory.