If ever there were a film that required a few days to mull over in the aftermath of viewing, it’s The Lighthouse. A chaotic yet simple tale, illustrating the claustrophobic isolation of tending a lighthouse on a remote island. It’ll stay with you, whether you want it to or not.
As the curtains draw back at The Hyde Park Picture House, the aspect ratio is cropped to a square, the colour snatched from the screen and you know this is going to be something different. The opening scenes unfold in silence, save for the sound of gentle waves and the powerful drones from a docked ship. As the new arrivals lumber toward the house, those being relieved shuffle past towards the dock with a restrained urgency. No words are exchanged between the two parties. As the ship pulls away and the drones gradually fade, our new inhabitants watch in silence. The sense of solitude is palpable and this is the canvas on which the story is composed.
Dafoe and Pattinson are a compelling double act. Which is what this is. Neither actor leads and neither supports. They operate as a pair and everything that unfolds comes from the space between them. A space that holds resentment and respect in equal measure. The volatility of this relationship is at the heart of the film and as the story progresses and these emotions are amplified, so too is our sense of dread. It’s intentionally difficult to know what they actually feel about each other. An inability compounded by scenes that fluctuate between humour and darkness, love and hate, rage and peace in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. Joey comments on this in episode two of the podcast, citing similar thematic juxtapositions as enhancing factors that provide entertainment and engagement throughout.
The performances flirt with the line between incredible and ridiculous but both Dafoe and Pattinson are intensely compelling regardless. Dafoe embodies Thomas Howard, a world-weary former seafarer, his accent a blend of Irish and Cornish. Thomas Wake (Pattinson) is a wandering and damaged soul, bouncing from trade to trade until he ends up a lighthouse keeper but it’s Howard, the more experienced of the two, who dictates the division of labour which is fundamentally where the central imbalance begins. As the story continues the actions of their characters become exponentially more obtuse, in both positive and negative ways, their emotions running at an all time high in both respects. The actors really do give it all in what could potentially be construed as insanity for insanity’s sake but for me, they just about land on the right side of the line. Admittedly, there were moments where I didn’t really know what was happening or why, but somehow I was still entertained and committed to the story which speaks to the entrancing nature of the film. Had they gone much further I may have agreed that the abstract quality of the third act was venturing into the realm of absurdity without context but like I said, writer and director Robert Eggers exercises enough restraint… just about.
The direction itself is nothing short of beautiful. The square aspect ratio enriching occasional moments of symmetry but mainly adding to the sense of tightness and discomfort that our characters feel, especially in the interior shots. There’s a marked sense of relief when it cuts to the exterior and the exposure opens up. It functions as a desperately needed breath of fresh air. In the latter half of the film however, the island is surrounded by a relentless storm and these moments of respite from the claustrophobia are no more. The black and white also works to augment the intensity of the central dynamic and their physical surroundings. It naturally creates a blank, flat environment that compliments our character’s lives and attitudes towards their situation. Personally, I would’ve preferred some colour as I think it could’ve been used in some interesting ways given the context of the story. As I say in the podcast, you can still have a relatively colourless film without literally extracting all the colour. 13 Reasons Why is an excellent example of using both the colour palette and aspect ratio to switch between flavours and demonstrate a character’s current outlook.
Ruling – Though this might read like a 5 star review, I generally save those ratings for films that leave me with that instinctual 5 star buzz as I leave the cinema. The Lighthouse didn’t give me that. However, I started this review by saying that, for me, this is the definition of a film that needs time to stew. Having allowed it to do so, discussing it on the podcast and in writing this review, I genuinely feel more up on it than I did after that initial viewing so who knows, perhaps on a re-watch it may go up…