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The Lighthouse

***1/2

by Matt Anderson

published October 24, 2019

The Lighthouse is a fever dream of cinema that's worth a look despite some narrative challenges.

Electrical Storm

This one is a technical marvel that stands as a polar opposite to virtually everything found in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As such — strictly in terms of the movie's behind-the-scenes ambitions — it might well be the year's most exciting movie.

The Lighthouse was filmed — on actual film stock — in black-and-white. That alone is cool. But it's also presented in a really old-school 1.19:1 aspect ratio. That's even more square than the ratio used in classics like the original King Kong (1933; 1.37:1) and Citizen Kane (1941; 1.33:1). Those two elements alone make The Lighthouse a cinematic treat. It's a movie that makes theater-going a fresh experience again — even with its monaural soundtrack.

It's interesting to think about how these filmmaking and presentation choices impact the material. It takes filmmaking back to its very core. It's all about putting light and shadows and interesting camera angles in service to draw out emotions from the viewer. The Lighthouse simply wouldn't be the same in color; it wouldn't carry the same sensations, the same weight. And the film stock gives the material a tactile, natural vibe of imperfection that's missing in the pristine world of digital imagery.

The technique is a major part of the movie's grip and fascination. That square window — in stark contrast to today's widescreen standards (for example, 1.85:1 and 2.35:1) — helps create a claustrophobic sensation that's perfectly suited to convey the feelings of entrapment experienced by the story's central characters.

The timing is impeccable. The Lighthouse's release comes on the heels of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola offering a critical view of Marvel's movies — the same argument raised last year by the author of the words you're reading right now in response to Avengers: Infinity War. The Lighthouse is a return to the base power of cinema.

Castaways

With The Lighthouse and The Joker, there's a throwback mindset afoot that ratchets down the big-budget action in favor of more intimate character studies.

As for the lead characters in The Lighthouse, there are only two. For roughly the first 10 minutes, not a word is spoken. As the story unfolds, their identities are questioned, their back stories are explored. One's a crusty old lighthouse worker named Thomas (Willem Dafoe, Aquaman) and the other, Ephraim, is a young man looking for a fresh start (Robert Pattinson, Water for Elephants).

The setting is the New England coast in the 1890s. The nights are dark and stormy. The days are equally dreary. Life is hard for these two and the isolation of working in the lighthouse begins to take its toll. Further stressing out the pair is the story of another couple of mariners who started their 4-week assignment, only to be stranded on the chip of land for 7 months — unreachable as the lighthouse was socked-in by severe weather.

How is it Ephraim landed this job opportunity? What happened to Thomas' former colleague? Did he leave? Did he die? Was he killed? By Thomas? Thomas is certainly a taskmaster; Ephraim gets all the crap jobs — literally, including the disposal of their waste. And Thomas is also mighty protective of the lighthouse's lantern room.

Supplementing the technical magic, Dafoe and Pattinson are in fine form as they make some tough dialogue roll of their tongues. Pattinson's made the rare transition from teen heartthrob in the Twilight series to a legitimately formidable talent in the arthouse world; now he's set to be the next Batman. Robert Eggers, who wrote and directed another New England tale, The Witch, co-wrote The Lighthouse with his brother, Max. Similar to the historical documentation and lore Eggers credited for The Witch, a nod is given to various lore and the works of Herman Melville and Sarah Orne Jewett for inspiring the peculiarly dated language and some of the situations.

Siren Screams

It's largely old-school filmmaking revisited with state-of-the-art proficiency, but as the narrative moves forward, modern storytelling sensibilities creep in.

There are nightmares involving logs, dead bodies and mermaids. It's David Lynch territory, in some respects — early Lynch, back when he worked exclusively in black-and-white. Here, there are masturbatory fantasies involving mermaids, lots of drunken revelry and disturbing undertones. The two men bicker like a married couple. There's also an aggressiveness between the pair that leads to competing efforts at domination.

At times, the storyline begins to undermine the experience. While it is about two men driven to madness by their isolation and paranoia, the conflict between what's real and what's imagined becomes more of a source of frustration than revelation. But, perhaps that's the point. Their frustrations become the audience's frustrations.

The emotional duel culminates with a stunning scene in which Ephraim puts a leash on Thomas and leads him out of the lighthouse on his hands and needs. Ephraim commands Thomas to enter a shallow grave and he proceeds to bury him alive. It's a shocker — Dafoe is shown having dirt thrown in his face even as he states his case. It's disturbing. And it's undeniably effective filmmaking.