The experience of watching a movie is often a passive one. You take a seat, lean back, and keep your eyes open. It’s not hard to do, most of the time, but some movies – I would argue some of the best ones – demand more of you. They move beyond the confines of narrative and into the realm of the senses, reaching inside of you and pulling something primal out. You feel them. After leaving the theater, your body is left reacting to the intensity your eyes have witnessed. Films like the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Eraserhead” and “Requiem for a Dream” have had this effect on me. Now Robert Egger’s Stunning sophomore feature, “The Lighthouse,” can be added to that list.
Egger’s feature manages to create a disturbing pseudo-reality while also remaining eerily corporeal. As the name suggests, it concerns a lighthouse on an island off the coast of New England. Our protagonists are two men charged with tending the light for a month. After the departure of the previous keepers, they are left with only each other for company and conversation. The older wickie, Willem Dafoe, makes no qualms about giving his subordinate, Robert Pattinson, the bulk of the work. Day in, day out, the younger man tends the coal, cleans the cistern and hauls heavy oil canisters up to the light, all while Dafoe remains locked up with the fresnel lantern.
This monotony continues for a considerable portion of the run time as we watch Pattinson’s character grow in resentment and frustration. Relief seems to be in site as the end of the term approaches, but nature (or maybe something more supernatural) has other plans in store. Much like in his previous feature, “The VVitch,” Egger’s demonstrates a mastery of pacing. Slowly turning the screw until finally unleashing a tempest of disturbing imagery. The film might seem to move at a snail’s pace to some viewers, but these early segments lay the groundwork for the explosive second and third acts.
Another carryover from “The VVitch” is the attention to minute production details. The hulking mechanisms of the lighthouse bring to life the post-industrial revolution 1890s. Interiors are littered with time-worn furniture and amenities, paint chipping away and floorboards peeling up. With the surrounding landscape of a treeless island, it‘s all quite bleak. You get the sense that these two men truly are alone in an endless sea of black waves lapping against their small refuge. It alternates between eerily calm and tormentingly hellish, a place where someone could forget if they are among the living or the dead. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography places all of these elements tightly within his monochromatic frame.
Those familiar with pre-widescreen cinema will recognize the square framing of the action. With widescreen, a DP will try to balance the frame, pushing subjects of interest to the left or right. With a square ratio, the action can be more centered and fill the entire frame. This adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere of the film. The viewer is pressed up into the tight living quarters of the Wickies. Pattinson and Dafoe’s faces are all we see as they chew, drink, spit and ramble on in fits of hysteria. The viewer has nowhere to go, no dead space in which to take refuge. Blaschke also takes full advantage of the black and white aesthetic. Some images are filled with pools of black that threaten to swallow the entire scene, while others have a foggy mist enveloping them until they seem on the verge of fading away. It brings to mind the ghostly frames of early sound films, such as Carl Theodore Dreyer’s “Vampyr,”. “The Lighthouse” earns the comparison to such classics.
If it wasn’t clear, I loved this film. I’ve seen it twice. The first time, I was awestruck by the presentation. The second time I was able to pay more attention to the dialogue and narrative details. Both experiences were rewarding as the film works on the mind and the body. It’s expertly crafted and a reminder of the power cinema can possess. I would suggest seeing it on the big screen, preferably with a dangerously loud speaker system.