Robert Eggers follows up The Witch with a starkly-compelling Expressionist drama
Dir: Robert Eggers. US. 2019. 110mins
Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch is a tense, claustrophobic psychological thriller about two 19th-century US lighthouse keepers stuck on a godforsaken rocky islet. It is all about being hemmed in – by bad life choices, by maleness, by regulations, by the stories we tell ourselves, by the walls of a storm-lashed cottage and tower. Shot in an expressionist black and white that harks back to cinema’s earliest years, The Lighthouse provides a marvellous chamber-drama platform for two actors, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, who seize the opportunity with gusto.
As in The Witch, realism and attention to period detail build authority in a world made of rock, iron, wood, glass and little else
Laced with literary references, imbued with nods at film history, vintage photography and the maritime culture of the 19th century, The Lighthouse lacks much of the crossover potential of Eggers’ debut, a 2015 Sundance period arthouse-horror breakout that took around ten times its $4 million budget at the box office. It has a certain casting draw, but Eggers has made a deliberately artsy thriller, with black-and-white photography and 1.19 to 1 aspect ratio acting. The flipside of this is that niche distributors and cineaste audiences wary of The Witch’s horror label need have no such qualms about The Lighthouse.
Arguably there are three main characters in the film – the third being the lighthouse itself. It’s obvious that the sturdy tower and the cottage it is linked to via a strange tilted corridor is not computer enhanced (apparently the set, built on a cape in Nova Scotia, withstood three storms during filming). As in The Witch, realism and attention to period detail build authority in a world made of rock, iron, wood, glass and little else. There’s clearly plenty of research behind everything from the keepers’ thick wool and oilskin clothes to the US Lighthouse Board manual which insecure rookie Efraim Winslow (Pattinson) quotes to his superior, wrinkled old sea dog Thomas Wake (Dafoe), soon after the two men have been left on this rocky, fogbound island for what is supposed to be a four-week turn of duty.
Wake, a drinker, talks in a rough but poetic language gleaned mostly, an end-title informs us, from the works of 19th-century Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett, but with plenty of echoes of the Hawthorne of ’Moby Dick’ and the Shakespeare of ’The Tempest’. Early on, the lighthouse veteran asserts his authority over his taciturn, seemingly teetotal second-in-command Winslow, telling him that “I tend the light”, and ordering the former lumberjack – who clearly has some shadow in his past – to do a series of menial tasks. If the lighthouse and its inaccessible, mysterious lantern are Wake’s world, the hangdog Winslow owns the barren, windswept, rain-lashed wilderness of rock and scrub outside, where aggressive seagulls threaten like spirit animals and seductive mermaids slither between dreams and reality.
Taking its time – perhaps a shade too much time – the script choreographs an intense, hothouse relationship that begins in master and servant mode but shifts towards an uneasy homo-erotic dance (literally at one point) when a storm cuts the island off, the water in the cistern becomes polluted, and alcohol becomes the two rugged colleagues’ drink of choice. Our vision is dominated by Winslow’s point of view, but it’s an unreliable one, as dream visions, an obsession with the forbidden tower in the lantern, and a scrimshaw mermaid he finds in his mattresses seem to be pushing Pattinson’s vulnerable character into madness. Dafoe plays brilliantly with our doubts about his character, shifting from demonic authoritarian to harmless yarn-spinning old salt in the time it takes to glug a shot of rum.
Referencing everything from German expressionist cinema of the 1920s to US silent comedy, the photography of Edward Weston and the from-the-ground-up perspective in the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, Jarin Blaschke’s photography is starkly compelling. The Witch composer Mark Korven once again crafts an evocative soundtrack.
Production companies: RT Features, New Regency, Parts & Labor, A24
International sales: A24, a24films.com
Producers: Rodrigo Teixera, Jay Van Hoy, Robert Eggers, Lourenço Sant’Anna, Youree Henley
Screenplay: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers
Production design: Craig Lathrop
Editing: Louise Ford
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke
Music: Mark Korven
Main cast: Roberto Pattinson, Willem Dafoe