“The Lighthouse” is a unique experience – one that not everyone will want to have. Its genius lies in its ability to make us feel as though we are descending into madness along with the characters. It makes us question or own sanity and ability to keep facts straight as things become twisted. Its use of sound design and cinematography help push us there, and expertly provokes that sense of dread and claustrophobia that the characters are experiencing.
Life is bleak for Winslow and Thomas when they’re dropped off at the lighthouse. Though it’s filmed in black and white, there’s an even greater sense of gloom and lack of definition. Films from the 40’s have more nuances in their color gradient. I guess I could say it’s the Seattle of films, especially considering that every day on the island is overcast. Fog seems to consume everything.
Things get strange right off the bat, with Winslow (played by Pattinson) experiencing hallucinations in the form of mythological creatures. We get the sense that he may already be a bit wonky. Winslow is ordered around by Thomas (played by Dafoe), who constantly demeans his younger counterpart by referring to him as “lad” and accusing him of not being a hard worker. Thomas seems to spend most of his day up in the gallery, while Winslow spends the day shoveling coal and fighting seagulls. When Thomas isn’t working or cooking, he’s telling long-winded stories and farting.
Thomas denies Winslow access to the light, which quickly becomes an obsession for the young man. What secrets could be up there? For us, it’s a simple answer, but for him, the sirens are calling. There are some terrifyingly provocative scenes that show Eggers isn’t abashed from playing on loneliness and the effect it can have on men’s sexual desires. The first instance happens relatively early on, but things only get more surreal. We question which of the two men will go completely mad first, and it’s unclear whether Thomas is crazily trying to destroy Winslow, or just hording the only measure of sanity for himself. Ironically, the two seem to be most sane in instances of heavy drinking. There’s a surprising amount of humor in such a bleak picture.
Dafoe and Pattinson put on career-best performances, with Dafoe portraying a caricature of an established seaman, and Pattinson displaying every corner of emotion that a man can get trapped in. More praise has been given to Dafoe, but I think Pattinson is the one who deserves the nomination, should one be given. That being said, it’s hard to imagine that either would have worked so well had the other not been present. Although the two may make a thrilling duo onscreen, their characters make it clear that nothing may be scarier than being forced to spend time with someone you dislike.
The acting may be front and center, but “The Lighthouse” also expects us to recognize the contribution of its creative team and Eggers in particular. The 4:3 ratio, the screams of a mermaid, and the constant blaring of the fog horn create an immediate sensory overload. It’s a remarkable technical achievement, but is it a dramatic one? I couldn’t help but find it a bit self-aware for its own good. I wouldn’t say it’s pretentious in its metaphors, but it does have a few jarring moments of imagery taken directly from stories like “The Odyssey” and the myth of Prometheus. The lighthouse itself is drenched in symbolism. The film gets surprisingly grisly towards the end. While I wouldn’t call the experience “fun,” there’s always that sense of endearment in an experimental film, and I found myself constantly engaged in the story. Should I try to dissect it though, I may not find it so clever.
Still, the warped sense of reality that exists in “The Lighthouse” is a thrill to experience. The most surprising aspect is how there’s not a dissent into madness on the part of Winslow. His disturbing mental state already exists. He may be trying to run away from horrors on the mainland, but they are only exaggerated through isolation on the island. There are many uncomfortable moments, and the commitment on behalf of everyone involved in the production is admirable. It’s a bit choppy, but maybe that’s the point. It’s sporadic like the storm going on outside and in the characters’ heads. Could the lighthouse be purgatory in a way? If you want a film that can make everyone in your party walk out with different theories, give this one a go.