Caroline Groff, Staff Writer
What’s the deal with seagulls? And what exactly is going on at the top of that lighthouse? By the end of “The Lighthouse” you probably still won’t have the answer, but it still will be exhilarating to watch. On the surface, the story of “The Lighthouse” is as simple as the name would suggest, but as time passes it becomes obvious that this is no simple nautical tale. Director Robert Eggers fearlessly takes on the job of portraying ocean side life with two unnerving souls who are unsure which one of themselves is going mad.
Eggers, best known for his 2017 film “The Witch,” continues his fascination with isolation and paranoia in this latest work. The film only sees two characters in its entirety, four if you count the compelling mermaid and ominous seagull -which you should. Thomas Wake, played my Willem Defoe, and Ephraim Winslow, played by Robert Pattinson, come to shore as two lighthouse keepers at a New England station in the 1890s. Eggers takes on the task of creating visceral solitude and succeeds. Stylistic choice and creative direction play as much a role in the film as Defoe and Pattinson. Entirely filmed in black and white, every facial expression and scenic ocean shot is bathed in gray. The black and white cinematography helps bring in the obviously bleak tones, but surprisingly creates shadows and movements that are unexpectedly breathtaking. It is impossible to imagine the film in color at all.
The sound design and score pairs exceptionally with these stylistic choices. The music and sound feel like that of an old Hollywood epic, simultaneously melodic and nauseatingly repetitive. This is surprisingly meant as a complement as it succeeds in travelling further and further into the dreariness and routine of the nautical pair.
The real plot of the story is what gets tricky to pinpoint. It is all over the place and plays right into the film’s hand. As Wake and Winslow adjust to life at their lighthouse station, the struggle for dominance and power take hold. Wake takes on a fascination of the light itself and never allows Winslow up, but rather subjects him to laboring work. Winslow becomes bitter and suspicious of what Wake may be doing up at the top of the lighthouse, growing tired of Wakes’ demands and preaching of seagulls and sea gods. The tension and companionship between the two becomes messy as the pair constantly switches from mortal enemies to drinking buddies.
While the film is dark and unforgiving in nature, there is a surprising amount of humor present in the duo of Defoe and Pattinson. The arguments become absurd to the point of amusement. Frigid relationships seem to be director Robert Eggers’ forte. While “The Witch” was subtle and quietly creeping, “The Lighthouse” is dirty, loud and completely off the rails. The style choices are similar, but the opposing atmospheres will give you whiplash. The last twenty minutes of the film feel like a hallucination of both the character and viewers’ minds alike. You are never sure of what is actually happening in the film’s reality, or if there was ever a reality in the film to begin with.
The difficulty with the film is that there is no real horror to grab onto, but an often-aggravating realization that the horror is just out of arm’s reach. It is not subtle and instead goes for boisterous performances and even more over the top creative direction. It is over the top in tactful ways. It’s dirty and miserable.
The last twenty minutes feel like falling down a spiral staircase. In hopes to avoid spoilers, it can be simply stated that nothing about the last half of the film is predictable. The real horror of this film is the uncertainty of where every line of dialogue is leading you. You aren’t just watching two people slip into madness, but you are starting to fear you may be slipping into it yourself. Every image is joyfully unnerving and refreshingly rowdy. Just when it starts to feel tedious and mundane, the film is quick to remind you what is in store. If there is one thing to be learned, it is to always watch out for the seagulls.