Spoilers have seen the light.
Every once in a while I watch a movie everyone seems to love and find myself utterly bored by it. That was Robert Eggers’ The Witch for me back in 2015. I was so perplexed that I’ve never reviewed it, thinking that one day I will revisit it anew. That day hasn’t come yet, but in the meantime it seems I get a new chance to watch another feature of him for the first time and see if I can glimpse a spark of genius in a sea of darkness. And darkness does permeate this new film, all the way from the surface to its very depth.
The Lighthouse was directed by Robert Eggers who also wrote the screenplay with his brother, Max Eggers. It was shot on black and white 35mm film at a 1.19:1 aspect ratio to emulate both old photography and give the viewer a sense of constraint and repression that fits with the story. Two lighthouse keepers, an old man (Willem Defoe) and young novice (Robert Pattinson) are stationed together in a remote and rather inaccessible island.
Eventually we will learn that the older one, a lighthouse keeper or “wickie” for life, is called Thomas Wake (Defoe) while the young man calls himself Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson). Wake is over the edge of reality, keeping the task of tending to the light for himself and leaving all the hard labour for Winslow. Winslow himself has purposefully run all the way to the edge of the world, pursued by a dark past and not far from going over the edge of his own sanity.
Gradually we see both men going insane, albeit it seems Wake has been courting madness for a while. For Winslow, it seems to be more painful, with visions that start as bad dreams. It’s a slow burn, or rather a slow drowning, as Winslow loses his grasp and his temper seems to get the better of him. Add the isolation, a cackling one-eye seagull and the constant berating from Wake and the line between the young man’s reality and his nightmares starts to get blurry.
Technically, this is an achievement. The cinematography, the aesthetic, the performances are all conducive to a movie that paints a portrait of despair and crudeness. Horror is rather slow and gradual, a feeling of sinking into the darkness surrounding our characters both metaphorically and literally. The horror comes from the depressive desperation in which our characters seem to be drowning into. There is also a bit of dark and bleak humour just on the surface, a barely noticeable layer of sugar coating to swallow the bitter pill.
But as technically and nominally impressive in its subject matter and fitting tone, it is a story with little passion to inspire, please or engage the casual audience. Cinephiles will love this movie for what it is from the start, but it will not seduce a random audience that just walked in unknowingly. The movie does not seek to thrill or entertain unless you are already impressed by its style. It will not make converts out of the non-initiated. It is a niche product for a specific viewer set.
This is a scholar film that does not cater to mainstream audiences, and that’s ok. More movies like these should be made as long as there’s an audience to love them. As an olive branch, there are some rare jump-in points for viewers seeking enlightenment. For example, at some point Wake does explain what the seagulls and the light represent. The passion is in the filmmaking process more than it is in the genre. In other words, the craft is amazing but it does not inspire horror. Sure, it’s depressing and dark and full of despair but hardly scary.
Only recommended for film aficionados, students and scholars that can appreciate the technical achievements and the convergence of theme and aesthetic. Casual viewers might appreciate the strong performances but will probably be put off by the depressive atmosphere. Without any attempts to please, seduce or appeal to a more widespread demographic, The Lighthouse is still an achievement and a shining beacon for the select audience willing to appreciate its murky depths.
That will do for now.