THE LIGHTHOUSE

The VVitch: A New England Folktale was not only the best horror film of 2016, but I firmly believe it’s the best horror film of the decade, and one of the best of all time. Especially as a debut film, it was masterfully crafted by Robert Eggers, filling us with dread, anxiety, and disgust. It truly was something special, especially amongst all of the other generic, mass appeal horror films. As impressive of a debut as it was, though, would he end up being one of those fluke filmmakers, or someone who is truly to be reckoned with? 

In the late 1800’s, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) travels to a remote island on the East Coast to be an assistant for lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). Wake is a rude, foul, and cantankerous man, who doesn’t really take all that kindly to Winslow. Trapped together on the island, Winslow and Wake form a bond, but a bond that comes with isolation. Isolation leads to madness, which leads to suspicion. Noticing Wake goes up to The Lighthouse every night, Winslow believes there’s enchantment in the light. But is there? What is real? Who knows? 
 
Films about isolation and people losing their minds are my jam. I mean, who doesn’t love The Shining and The Thing? A big reason those films work is because of the anxiety inducing atmosphere, making you question your own reality. Eggers accomplished this to amazing effect in The VVitch, where you feel just as isolated and helpless as the characters. The guy certainly knows how to build an atmosphere that feels completely real, even if they may take place in supernatural worlds. The VVitch is very direct and obvious with showing that there’s a real witch with magical powers in the woods, but The Lighthouse is far more open to interpretation. You’re trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not along with Winslow and he comes across some truly horrific sights. Mermaids in the dark ocean, tentacled sea monsters, and a naked Willem Dafoe shooting beams of light out of his face, just to name a few. Eggers lifted a lot from folklore when he made The VVitch, and you can tell he drew from a lot of the same folklore in regards to old tales about the sea. Like the text at the end of The VVitch said, The Lighthouse states that everything from the dialogue, the beliefs, and lighthouse keeping routine are all taken from real journals of sailors and lighthouse keepers. Eggers effortlessly puts you in the mindset of these characters, to feel exactly what they feel, giving us some truly unsettling sequences. 
 
This was shot in a 1.19 : 1 aspect ratio (similar to 4:3) on 35mm black and white film. A lot of people may label that as pretentious or too artsy, but this aesthetic was absolutely necessary in creating this film. Not only does it give off an old-timey film feeling, which is perfect for the time period its set in, but it’s used to convey everything that the characters are feeling and heighten the sense of isolation. When Pattinson and Dafoe share scenes together, they’re crammed right in and right in each other’s faces. It’s like you’re trapped with that person and there’s no escape. It may be on an island and their house there seems to be a decent enough home, but everything feels so claustrophobic. The black and white cinematography and the specific lighting that goes along with that, the frame will sometimes close in on the characters if their surroundings are shrouded in darkness. The lack of color also gives it a more eerie feeling, especially when fog constantly surrounds the enviornment, making everything seem distant and nearly invisible. When Winslow arrives on the island he watches the ship disappear out into the fog, the dread immediately starts settling in. Composer Mark Koven, who was instrumental in making The VVitch as terrifying as it was, returns for the score. It sounds a lot less orchestral than The VVitch, instead using more droning and intense effects. Aside from the fact that is had audio, it feels so authentic and from that time that it feels like this was taken from a time capsule. 
 
What makes The Lighthouse feel even more isolated? The fact Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are literally the only two characters in this movie. There are some people in the background when Winslow first shows up and the mermaid, but as far as stars, Pattinson and Dafoe are all we get. That’s not a problem, though, as both stars are phenomenal together, and on their own. As you would expect, they share a lot of screentime together and Pattinson more than holds his own against the veteran Dafoe. Dafoe definitely gets the more showy part, playing the crusty and cranky lighthouse keeper, who drinks, farts, and goes on lengthy crazy monologues. Like I said above, it all feels so authentic, that I really felt like I was watching some lighthouse keeper lose his mind. In a monologue that should win Dafoe all of the awards this year, he stares down Pattinson and gives him a lengthy, shouting monologue which is basically condemning him to a nautical death. He starts the monologue with his eyes closed, but they shoot open and basically pierce through Pattinson’s brain, and he never blinks for the rest of it. There are many other expert displays of acting throughout, with a lot of credit going to Pattinson. He is the main character and when Wake isn’t around, it’s all him reacting to the situation. He’s an incredible eye actor, showing a variety of different expressions and emotions. It’s all sold by the final sequence of the film, which I’ve watched numerous times on YouTube and it gets me the same way every time. Easily the most effective movie of ending of the year for me, Pattinson flawlessly selling that feeling of wonder and terror. 
 
With all the talk of atmosphere, it’s not really a straight horror like The VVitch was, falling more into the fantasy and drama genre, but there are definitely still horror elements. There’s a surprising bit of humor to be found throughout, which never deflates the tension or atmosphere, but really compliments it. Eggers commented that if he could change one thing about The VVitch, it would be to add some levity with some humor. I felt that would have greatly diminished the movie’s feeling, especially since Puritans were pretty humorless anyway. With sailors in the 1890’s, it makes far more sense for comedy to occur. While we’re supposed to be on edge and disturbed, there’s nothing wrong with some comic relief, as long as it’s played well. It all feels natural here, even Wake’s constant farting. It’s just another aspect to his disgusting character and shows that he really doesn’t care about making Winslow miserable. It all culminated in a terrific scene where Winslow snaps and verbally lashes out at Wake about everything that drives him crazy and to cap it all off, his biggest complaint is the farting. Hey, they didn’t seem to have the best diet, so, wouldn’t you lose your sanity, too? The humor never felt out of place and only fleshed out the characters and story more. The bond and conflict that forms between Winslow and Wake feels very genuine, where they don’t take kindly to each other, but learn to tolerate each other… at least for as long as they can. 
 
Not all filmmaker sophomore efforts are home runs, but The Lighthouse is one of the finest second outings I’ve seen from a filmmaker. Eggers is extremely confident in his skills, especially when it comes to building an authentic atmosphere that sends constant chills through your body, while also telling a compelling story. You need great actors to make the story work, though, and Pattinson and Dafoe make this one of the most engrossing horror films since… well, The VVitch. Eggers could have definitely dipped back into the well of his last film, but he crafts something completely different and far more daring here. Who knows what his deranged mind will think of next? 
 
10/10 

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