Surviving the cinematic experience that is The Lighthouse can be unpacked into a simple four player game of poker. Robert Eggers creeps in the corner with an unremorseful smile, for he knows he’ll win but will never properly reveal his full hand. And Willem Dafoe wields a similar cheeky smirk but has an obvious tell: his jittery leg. So, unlike Eggers, he’s probably bluffing. Robert Pattinson, on the other hand, has never played poker before. His forehead glistens of sweat, his fingers twitch and his chips are a triadic pile of inorganisation. The fourth equally confused player is the audience. On the surface, Tom Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) are the only souls manning the island of the coast of New England — other than those pesky seagulls. But the third lighthouse keeper is you.
On the island, Ephraim’s mundane jobs give The Lighthouse’s narrative its original driving force while simultaneously mentally mapping out the island’s landmarks. Becoming lost in Ephraim’s daily grind is insanity enough. He is pummelled by the unrelenting wind and rain as a bellowing ship horn harks out from beyond the sea mist. All whilst Tom mysteriously lurks in the light not contributing to the menial jobs. Tales of mermaids and sea monsters crumble Ephraim’s mental state as he stumbles to uncover the island’s macabre secrets.
The Lighthouse is truly a feature that is best left to self-discovery, so I’ll leave the exposition here. It’s also a masterclass of filmmaking where every aspect complements the other into a spellbinding culmination.
Presented in black and white film through a 1:1 aspect ratio via cinematographer Jarin Blashcke, The Lighthouse constricts the viewer into an uncomfortable (or unfamiliar) format, thus accentuating the feeling of claustrophobia. The grainy film emphasises Dafoe and Pattinson’s leathery faces as each pore and crease defines their morose expressions.
Listening to Dafoe and Pattinson reveling in Eggers’ chewy dialogue is joyous. Sea shanties and drunken stories allow two bellowing performances to shine through, and both are already itching for awards season recognition. Pattinson in particular indulges in the theatricality of the writing by slowly spiralling alongside the insanity of the narrative and erupting in the conclusive catalyst. Dafoe offers tremendous support as a hysterical caricature lampooning sailor stereotypes with a foul mouth and toxic rear end. Drunken tomfoolery delivers elasticity with their relationship dynamically shifting from jolly comradeship to a leader-protégé hatred never dwindling in enjoyment.
Working in harmony, Mark Korven’s musical horror and Damien Volpe’s sound design consistently bubble under the surface, hinting at unsettling and unfolding motifs. Never letting up, it keeps the audience on their toes, engaged, and screaming in fear. Thinking of a word other than “delicious” to describe the sound design is proving difficult, as it is so crisp and satisfying that it causes The Lighthouse to become a sensory pleasure. With the story meticulously toying with an intricately woven mythos, viewers are entranced with the mystery of the island much like Tom is with the light. Alongside Ephraim, one slips further and further into the enigma that’s constantly digging to uncover the truth. Eggers is persistent in never revealing his hand, but I’ve got a hunch he’s hiding a royal flush.
Tommy James (TommyJames__) is a film student specialising in publicity and journalism at Falmouth University. Constantly looking for his next film obsession, coming-of-age is his genre of choice. If Tommy was on a game show, Greta Gerwig would be his specialist subject.