As much as I love film, both its creation and consumption, I have never been able to go to the theater as often as I’d like to. Some of it is a matter of transportation, but much of it has been a disinterest in the contemporary. I never like to stay ignorant of modern film, but it takes a lot to draw me into seeing a picture. And unfortunately, the New Beverly isn’t a hop-skip-and-a-jump away. Until 2019. It was this year I was able to really indulge in what I wanted out of film in the here-and-now, beginning with what became my first theater experience of the year: Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse.
Released by the wildly popular distributor A24, The Lighthouse centers on lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake and “Ephraim Winslow,” portrayed by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson respectively. Wake is a seasoned veteran; Winslow a novice who has taken up wickie work as another in a series of odd jobs. What no one could foresee is the mental devolution of Winslow, haunted by a plethora of visions, and slowly growing more deranged and agitated. Co-written with his brother Max, Eggers dishes up another slice of intricate period horror that astounds and shocks in the most masterful of ways.
The attention to detail is what anyone will notice from the outset of the film. The tale of madness the Eggers Brothers craft is thoroughly immersed in its time and place, that being an isle off the coast of 19th-century New England. Utilizing a unique dialect for the lightkeepers, Dafoe speaks with a maritime tongue while Pattinson employed a specific rural accent, native to Maine. On top of the film’s endlessly engaging dialogue, production designer Craig Lathrop paid exceptional attention to crafting the look of the film. A very lived-in New England lighthouse is shown, with all the trimmings and trappings therein. The Lighthouse itself was built especially for the film, towering at 70 feet tall. Adding to that Herculean effort is the film’s cinematography, which captures everything in a most painterly way.
A variety of equipment aided Jarin Blaschke in conjuring up the dark, grim look of the film. Shooting in the 1.19 aspect ratio that silent filmmakers like F.W. Murnau (Sunrise) and Fritz Lang (M) would use in the early sound era, Blaschke bequeaths the film a most exquisite look. A bleak, rustic quality that recalls the work of Ingmar Bergman (The Seventh Seal) and Carl Theodor Dreyer (Ordet). The claustrophobic framing and near constantly symmetrical compositions amplify the musty atmosphere and growing tension between Pattinson and Dafoe.
And speak of the devils, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are the beating, bleeding hearts of the film. Wake and Winslow are gifted an astounding chemistry by their performers, with Dafoe playing the old sailor type that clashes with Pattinson’s challenging youth. The intensity of the two rivals that of silent film stars, what with their eyes widening during their outbursts and their shouting matches later on. It becomes a feat of expressionism seeing the two in such a lively state as Winslow reveals more about himself. They are magnetic thespians; you could not take your eyes off the screen when they were there.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundscape of the film. Mark Korven crafts a breathtakingly bleak and eerie avant garde score, often having instruments mimic the bellowing of a foghorn. The monaural mix insures that Korven’s dissonant compositions amplify the tension and suspense of the film. Also of note is the sound design of Mariusz Glabinski and Damian Volpe. The ambiance of the location is beautifully utilized, as well as some of the more brutal sounds and effects that become prevalent later on. The closest I’ll come to spoiling the film is this: the scream Pattinson lets out near the film’s finale is distorted in one of the most haunting ways I can recall having ever heard.
The highest praise I can afford Eggers and The Lighthouse is that it simply is one of the most riveting experiences I have had in a theater. I like to speak of the idea of cinema of sensation. Not just in terms of the content of the film, but in the actual feelings and sensations the film stirs within the viewer, be they a chill down the spine or an indescribable feeling in response to the film. With its powerhouse pair of commanding actors, masterful cinematography and direction, and stream-of-conscious structure and pacing, Eggers has brought us a film that truly embodies the cinema of sensation. It thrills, it captivates, and it shocks with a picturesque audacity that must be seen to be believed. I must confess to not having watched much released in 2019, but from what I have, I believe this to be the best film of 2019, and easily one of the best of the decade. This and The VVitch have helped to establish Eggers as a master of horror, blending modern visceral sensibilities with an immersive look at times and places of the past.
The Lighthouse is available now on DVD, Blu-ray, and available for purchase or rental on Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, and Vudu. Emphatically recommended.