Since its release in 2015, The Witch has become an indispensable part of the new school horror wave. Initially controversial, it attracted both praise and condemnation from critics and audiences alike for predominantly the same core reason: pace. The sludging dread and dedicated old-world aesthetic appealed to some while absolutely repulsing others. A24 and their man on the job, first time feature director Robert Eggers, caught all types of flak for the way the movie was advertised when compared to its finished product.
The promotional material painted the film a nightmare in the vein of the genre’s modern style; jumpy and bursting with set pieces a la the Blumhouse productions that had so dominated theatres. The result was famously not at all that… rather an artsy picture that refused to hold your hand or really explain itself in layman’s terms. The clear disparity between the two ‘iterations’ raised and dashed expectations in one fell swoop for a portion of viewers… not a great way to open your debut project. The Witch was a complex beast of slow-burning narrative storytelling and for fans of that style, completely stole the year. Despite the divisive response, those that were on board with Eggers’ vision were eagerly awaiting more.
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So, lesson learned, and here we are again (finally) with another outing for the director/studio pair in the form of The Lighthouse. The film starts as two men (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) begin their working excursion to a remote island to serve as its lighthouse keepers. Progressing through a series of uncomfortable interactions in close proximity, the two workers learn to both love and resent each other’s ways minute-to-minute, and suffer extended bouts of stir craziness that force them to question what amongst this is real.
Dafoe shines as the authoritarian Thomas Wake, perhaps too aggressively imparting his knowledge of all things nautical to young journeyman Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), who he perceives as undisciplined and flaky. The performance strength never waivers for either actor truth be told, and the longer their captivity continues, the more erratic and soul-bearing the actions of the duo become. Wake’s drunken “Hark!” monologue immediately springs to mind… I imagine there’s a bunch of quotables in there alone that’ll get thrown around for a while.
The Lighthouse ticks off postmodern genre conventions in a very organic way. I made a point of mentioning the pace of Eggers’ previous movie earlier as it’s such a natural point of comparison, in the sense that by the time you realise what’s going on it’s already too late. This effort to tether the characters and the viewing experience together is straight out of The Witch and I’d guess will serve as a director trademark through future projects. No reveals in advance for the audience; everyone shares the moment.
As the days and weeks roll on, Winslow finds himself haunted by apparitions of the very folk tales Wake has described; throwing the last shreds of his already shaky sense of self into the depths of the water. So much of the film deals with isolation and who we are with limited stimuli that by the time the new, however terrifying batch of things to look at arrive, you’re almost glad.
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The tailored helplessness of these set pieces is almost of Lovecraftian scale; every new piece of lore should roll out the corners of the map a little but manages not to. Shots are just as controlled, as close up, except now the threat is behind the eyes. Maintaining a suffocating experience whilst addressing a much larger world is an incredibly difficult trick to pull but Eggers makes sure there’s no way your focus can deviate. You cannot hide out in the corners of the frame, everything is too concise for that.
The use of the old “Movietone” 1.19:1 aspect ratio, for example, would probably be a bizarre decision on paper if you had no idea what the film-makers were going for tonally, or what era they just so happened to be trying to call to mind. The 35mm shot, colour-drained box of a movie we’re presented with feels every bit as claustrophobic and periodically nauseous as it’s supposed to. You’re face to face with all of this transforming insanity for the duration. The edit, the soundscape, the shot selection… absolutely every small detail is meant to disturb whether you catch it or not. It’s been days and I still hear that incessant blaring foghorn every now and then.
The superb closing to the film allows for interpretations not via means of being vague… rather by having placed so many of its influences by now that it invites entertaining the lines of thinking that built them first. Into Greek mythology? Okay, there’s a lot for you in the final act. Ingmar Bergman fanatic? There’s your reading of it sorted. Psychology buff? Lucky you, you’re going to have a damn field day.
The only thing everyone will share upon viewing is the torture. I’d stretch something irreparably to call this a horror film, but it’s about as unpleasant as you can get regardless. I want it to watch it again immediately and also never again in my life.
The Lighthouse is surprisingly unpretentious for something that flies a flag the way it does for auteur cinema. I mentioned Bergman, I see a little David Lynch, and occasionally the movie reeks of Kubrick’s The Shining. I wouldn’t say any of these clear love affairs detract from what’s going on however;; there’s always enough of an identity to what’s on screen to keep the scene from wandering into tribute act territory. There’s text, subtext and powerful, powerful visuals from curtains open to curtains close and I can’t in good conscience ask for more than that.
Just like The Witch… this is one of those you’re going to have to see for yourself, and maybe a couple of times. For me and my affinity for the mad, however, it’s one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time.