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Film: The Lighthouse
Director: Robert Eggers
Writer: Max Eggers and Robert Eggers
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson and Valeriia Karaman
This was a film that had been on my radar for some time as I was a big fan of Robert Eggers first film, The Witch. With the news of the two actors that were casted to star in this one, which piqued my interest even more. I heard a few things about it, including an interview of Eggers himself that was the clincher to change my plans to go that night. It also was a bonus watch in a horror movie challenge that I’m trying to complete before October ends. I’ve now given it a second viewing as part of the Summer Series for the Podcast Under the Stairs. The synopsis here is the hypnotic and hallucinatory tale of two lighthouse keepers on a remote and mysterious New England Island in the 1890s.
We start this seeing the island in question. There’s a ship that is going out to it and it is bringing Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson). They’re taking over as the two keepers for the next month. Thomas will be the one to man the light at night while Ephraim will take care of the rest of the duties which are upkeep of the machinery and keeping the quarters in working order. According to the handbook, they should be sharing these duties, but Thomas has seniority.
There’s a tense scene to start us off at their first dinner. Thomas pours a drink for Ephraim and wants to do a toast. He points out in the manual that they’re not supposed to drink and pours it out. Thomas in turn tells him it is bad luck to not finish a toast. Ephraim gets water to avoid the omen, but it tastes horrible.
The two men make on an uneasy friendship, which is needed as they’re the only two people on this island. Ephraim starts to see weird things though. He sees a Mermaid (Valeriia Karaman) but wakes up in his bed. That opening day he found a statue of one inside his mattress. He thinks that he sees things in the room with the light while Thomas is up there and we get flashes of creepy images as well. He also isn’t the biggest fan of the seagulls on the island. As things go on though, we learn that these men aren’t as they seem and what we are seeing might not be what is happening as they descend into madness in their isolation. Their month-long position gets pushed out when a heavy storm rolls in.
Now I wanted to go a little bit vague for that recap for a couple different reasons. The first being that there’s not a lot that goes on in the film. We see things that happen, but as it goes, we learn the truth of what we saw and who these two really are. On top of that, I want you to experience it as well.
With that out of the way, I love the concept that we have set up here. One of my favorite troupes is the descent into madness. I personally deal with a lot of anxiety, so seeing mental illness when displayed properly in film is something that I enjoy. I think that the Eggers brothers did some good writing here and presenting that to us. This story is told from one of the point of views and it’s the other one that is pointing out what he is experiencing. I dug that, as it really made me consider what I see around me in my own life. There is also the care in the writing as they took examples from Herman Melville, lighthouse keepers journals and what not to make this as authentic as possible with the language.
This film is hard to talk about it as it is a mash up of so many things. I normally think that can be a detriment to a film, but here it oddly works. I heard this concept before seeing it and it makes complete sense afterwards. If they want to take this into a Lovecraftian way, they most definitely set it up. There’s comedy here as we get these two guys living together and being forced to interact, which is kind of like having a roommate. There are also some mariner superstitions here that made me worried if some of these bad things that are happening stem from that as well. There is that or a more logical explanation.
Before moving away from the story, we get this intriguing back and forth that goes through a good part of this. Thomas likes to drink near the end of the night. I’m assuming he’s an alcoholic. He’s annoyed when Ephraim won’t drink with him. Part of me thought it was due to him being an alcoholic. The truth of the matter is that he’s afraid of what he’ll say if he gets drunk. The other part is that he tends to lose control when he is.
I want to shift gears to talk about the pacing of this film. It comes in at a runtime of 109 minutes, so just under two hours. I’d say that at the halfway point of that is when they start celebrating that they’re almost off the island, but that’s where it gets crazy. We really get to know the characters during that time, or at least we think we do. Even though we don’t necessarily always know what is going on and what to believe, I think it takes us on a journey to figure that out. The ending was interesting as well and I did like it, even if I don’t necessarily completely understand it. It is ambiguous, which I can appreciate to make my own decisions. I should point out here that this is also borrowing from Prometheus and the tale of him giving fire to humans. This would make Thomas the titan that was the keeper of the flame. There are so many layers here for a character study of these two men.
Which will take me to the best part of this, the performances. Dafoe plays a man that comes off as a ship captain that is from the New England area. To use a pun, he wants to run a tight ship and makes Ephraim do all the grunt work. This makes him seem mean, but I think that is to maintain order. Pattinson on the other side though is a logger. He portrays this role well and the more we learn about him, the crazier it gets though. Karaman also is solid in the small role she has. She plays a mermaid that is more like the mythological version of the creature, but she is still quite attractive and we get to see her topless as well. Other than that, we get some smaller roles that help round this out.
That will take me to the effects of this one, which to be honest there’s not a lot. It isn’t that type of film though. I do think that the mermaid effects were done practically for the most part. I do know there’s a scene with CGI, but we see it at a distance and that works. We also get to see something like octopus tentacles that are CGI. We don’t linger on it, so we really don’t get to break it apart too much. I will say that how this is shot is amazing. We get a weird aspect ratio, which from the interview wasn’t used long in the past, but it was popular at the time of the likes of Fritz Lang. There’s time where I noticed and it just makes things feel off, but there’s times when in darkness you forget and it’s almost overbearing. I thought it really added something for sure. This is also shot in black and white, which going back to the effects, helps to hide them. It adds another element here for sure.
This moves to me to the soundtrack and the final thing to go over. There’s a recurring foghorn that partially drives Ephraim crazy. I know a couple times it made me jump with how loud it is. It does fall back into almost being a recurring background noise that is eerie at times. The rest of the score is subtle, but I did feel it building dread within me. I think that fits what they were going for and I was on board.
Now with that said, this film is hard to classify. We have a buddy story of these two guys who are isolated on an island with a lighthouse. Thomas is out to exert his dominance and Ephraim just wants to work his time and get paid. There are secrets that are hidden and the isolation drives them mad. It does become a fever dream where you don’t know what is real and what’s not, which I dig. The acting is amazing from our two leads for sure. I like the effects that we get as well as how it was filmed. It is out of the ordinary and since this whole film is like that, it works. The soundtrack has some good sounds and I think the rest of it fits for what was needed. Overall, I’d say this is good and I think I need another viewing to pick up anything I may have missed. I would recommend this if you’re into arthouse films or non-traditional horror films. Now I can say with this second viewing that the filmmaker parts are excellent. I’m not as high as the story is lacking ever so slightly, but as a character study of two men going mad, this is great.
My Rating: 8.5 out of 10