The Lighthouse is director/writer Robert Eggers’s second feature film and is written by both Robert Eggers and his brother Max Eggers. I was very excited for this film due to my love of the director’s first film, The Witch. I thought The Witch had some great performances along with an interesting plot and a sense of dread that continued to build until the film’s last, horrifying but beautiful moment. That said, I had high expectations for this film, and I am glad to say it did not disappoint.
The Lighthouse is set in the 1890s off the coast of New England. The film follows two men, one old and experienced and another young and inexperienced, who are beginning a month-long job maintaining and working a lighthouse. Once there, the pair struggle to get along and amidst many strange occurrences find themselves going insane.
Almost as soon as the film started it displayed many masterful technical aspects that only improved as it went on. One of the first things that stood out to me during my first viewing was the sound design, which is something that I rarely notice in films. Whether it be the harsh storm with its thunder and intense rain or the deep bellowing of the lighthouse horn itself, the sound manages to add to the dread-filled tone of the film.
Robert Eggers is also able to amplify this tone through the various other technical aspects of the film. The Lighthouse is shot in black and white, which makes everything, especially the storm, appear more menacing. By eliminating all other colors from the world and having a good portion of the film set in a dark environment, Eggers is able to amplify the tension of the situation. Looking out at the ocean during the storm, it appears as a black void, which promotes the feeling that there is no escape. When characters are outside in the dark, the main source of light is the lighthouse, which makes it feel like the beacon of hope that lighthouses generally are, even if that may not be the case in this film.
The film is shot in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which essentially condenses the image horizontally. Besides helping to make the film feel as though it was shot in the time period it takes place in, the aspect ratio adds to the claustrophobic nature of the film as a whole. This is shown primarily inside the living quarters next to the lighthouse, which feel small, cramped, and undesirable to live in. This feeling is only amplified by the set design. The space feels thrown together with crooked buildings and dirty living quarters. Every indoor space feels lived in and considering this is a film about two fairly unkempt seamen, you can expect to see objects strewn over countertops and towards the end of the film, plates, furniture, and bottles broken and scattered around the various rooms.
Eggers also employs camerawork to amplify the feeling of claustrophobia. He uses an abundance of close-ups when filming inside, rarely giving the viewer a chance to take a step back. Besides the enclosed feeling the camera provides, the film overall is well shot and has a wide array of memorable sequences, due in part to the cinematography. One example is when the camera moves from the bottom of the lighthouse and inside it to the top of the lighthouse, which creates a real sense of the power dynamic in the film, as one character is shown to be physically and metaphorically “higher” than the other.
Besides the outstanding technical aspects of the film, The Lighthouse also boasts some great acting from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. Pattinson plays Winslow, a new lighthouse keeper with no experience with either lighthouses or the sea. He manages to convey a wide array of emotions—from delight to deep despair—in a way that is both convincing and compelling to watch. I found myself focusing on the acting the least because it all felt so natural. Dafoe also shines in his role as Thomas, an old, experienced, talkative worker who—for the first half of the film—commands the dialogue and the room in an exquisitely entertaining way. Dafoe is required to go from extreme highs when ordering Pattinson around, to immense lows when experiencing utter emotional and physical defeat. Dafoe also gives multiple high-energy monologues that, while they may sound silly on paper, are performed with such passion and sincerity that they become wholly convincing on screen.
The actors also manage to pull all this off with a script that is written in 19th-century dialect without making it sound comical or unnecessary. This helps make the film feel like the time period in which it was set. The script also features quite a few humorous moments, which are handled well by both the actors and by the film as a whole in that the humor does not detract from the suspense and tension.
All that said, I am still undecided as to whether or not I loved the story of the film. I say this because the film leaves you with so many questions and very few, if any, answers. Now, this is not inherently a bad thing, as it can be part of the experience to figure out what you think happened. That said, after thinking about the film for some time, I cannot seem to come to any concrete answer as to what happened. But this might not be a bad thing either. If I was to take the film at face value, I would be able to accept it as a story about two men who slowly go more and more insane together, all while a storm grows increasingly intense around them. That said, there are so many undeniably important sequences in the film that hint at something more going on.
The themes are also difficult to place. Personally, I believe the film is about power and desire, but that is just one interpretation. It may also be about toxic masculinity, sexuality, confronting your past, how your mistakes impact your future, or all of the above. Furthermore, there are definitely some references to Greek mythology that made me wonder if the film is simply a recreation of an ancient myth or if the myth just serves to further the story as a whole.
All that said, it does seem to be the director’s wish that the film leaves you questioning what happened. In one interview, Robert Eggers said: “it was certainly my and my brother’s intention to keep it ambiguous. We have a few really over-the-top, in-your-face signposts to grab onto… But then there’s other lines of dialogue that are as important that you might miss, and are also deliberately photographed and blocked in that way to hope the audience is like, ‘Wait! Oh!’ And to throw them off kilter. I hope it works. It does need to be ambiguous.”
Overall, The Lighthouse is a great film. Almost every technical decision enhances the others and creates an exceptionally immersive tone. While I would have enjoyed a slightly clearer story, some viewers may find that they enjoy the ambiguity. Because the film does require closer examination when trying to make sense of it, viewers will find themselves pondering its meaning long after they leave the theater.