Robert Eggers’ Follow-Up to The Witch is One of the Best Films of 2019
As a 50-year-old film obsessive, I’ve learned one important lesson: If a job description has the word “caretaker” in it, just say NO. Cinema has taught me that being alone and isolated in a remote location with little or no supervision is never a good idea. Cabin fever doesn’t just strike in a cabin. Ask Jack Torrance, the caretaker of The Overlook Hotel, in Stanley Kubrick’s classic descent-into-madness tale, The Shining. Is he an abusive alcoholic who falls off the wagon in spectacularly violent fashion? Or is he a pawn of supernatural forces at the hotel where he’s “always been the caretaker”? Or, perhaps, a little bit of both?
Horror films love blurring the lines between the supernatural and the mentally unstable. And, although it is in no way a standard horror film, The Lighthouse, mines that thematic vein to great effect. In Robert Eggers’ follow-up to The Witch, Thomas (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim (Robert Pattinson) are left in charge of a lighthouse on a small deserted stretch of the New England coast in the 1890’s. Thomas is an experienced “wicky” who has spent a career keeping the light burning for the ships finding their way home. Ephraim is still wet behind the ears, having spent his young adult years in the timber industry. The two men are charged with refurbishing the lighthouse and keeping the home fires burning for a couple of months when their relief will arrive and take over. After violent storms set in, provisions begin to dwindle and the two men start to cope with their isolation in different, possibly unhealthy, ways.
The Lighthouse is a striking piece of film-making. Shot in a 1.19: 1 aspect ratio, the screen is nearly a perfect square, accentuating the claustrophobia of two men living in close quarters. The black and white cinematography is exquisite. If not for the higher fidelity of the images, the footage would be reminiscent of films shown in nickelodeons in the early 1900’s. I have no doubt that I would benefit from a second viewing because I found myself getting lost in the beauty of the film’s images to the detriment of the unfolding narrative.
The screenplay and the production design evoke another time and another world just as The Witch brought New England of the 1630’s to vivid life. The accents, the jargon used by the actors and the costumes are pitch perfect. Subtract the fantastical elements from the story, and The Lighthouse plays damn near like a documentary of the 1890’s life of a land-locked seaman.
The film makes great use of the myths and legends of the sea. From mermaids and tentacled sea monsters to the sacrosanct status of seagulls, The Lighthouse references these symbols of the sea-faring life. With the film set in the 1890’s, the audience is left to determine if these images are more myth or reality in the minds of our central characters.
Dafoe delivers a big, Captain Ahab-inspired performance as Thomas, but never steps over the line into camp. Pattinson, on the otherhand, is more restrained, almost timid, allowing his portrayal of Ephraim to be largely internal. The pair strike a perfect tonal balance. Can a duo win Best Ensemble at the SAG awards? It would be well-deserved in this case.
The Lighthouse is an Eye of the Beholder film. You have to see it and make up your own mind. If you didn’t like The Witch, don’t let that dissuade you from seeing this film. They are two entirely different experiences. If you loved The Witch (as I did), then you’re going to be enthralled with this latest step in Robert Eggers’ film career.