By Benjamin Akpan
Thus far, 2019 has been the year for sophomore horror triumphs. In March, Jordan Peele brought his Lupita Nyong’o-led allegorical nightmare Us, which balanced wit, terror, intrigue, and action, to construct a petrifying narrative that was just as entertaining as it was socially reflective. Then, in July came Ari Aster’s Midsommar, a psychedelic cluster of blood-splattering barbarity that found humour in the physicality of grief and the turmoil of a relationship gone badly.
And so, we are left with Robert Eggers, whose 2015 debut The Witch was a mentally-tormenting exploration of the darkness of isolation and the trepidation attached to familial distrust. A strikingly intelligent film, The Witch was a triumph, mounting a heap of anticipation on his follow-up, The Lighthouse. On the surface, The Witch and The Lighthouse aren’t that much different at all: in both films, Eggers tackles the fosterage of madness as a result of solitude; both films are set in a time long forgotten – the first in the 1600s, the latter in the 1800s – where Shakespearean dialogue fires the embers of authenticity; and both take place in a single location – The Witch in a secluded homestead far from civilization, and The Lighthouse in the titular lighthouse. Yet, both films couldn’t be any more different. If anything, all they share in common is proof that Eggers has a knack for folklore, and that he might very well be as crazy as his characters.
How do you begin to describe a film like The Lighthouse when you’re in as much awe as terror of what’s been presented before you? Eggers takes the six-person principal cast of The Witch and slashes it down to two enigmas whose names we’re left without until halfway through the film. As they stare silently ahead in the opening scene – their eyes piercing straight into our very souls – there’s no doubt about the aberration that’s set to follow. If Eggers’ debut was a slow-burn descent into the very fears of isolation, The Lighthouse is an abrupt and uncompromised showcase of insanity that barely gives you a second to catch up – there’s no backstory or set-up, nor is there room for pleasantries.
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Ultimately, when stripped down to its bones, The Lighthouse is nothing but 110 minutes of two men trying to surpass the insanity of the other, and Eggers entrusts this story into the hands of Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, who prove that they are more than capable, putting on career-climaxing performances that are viciously haunting and arresting. Respectively, Pattinson and Dafoe are Ephraim Winslow and Thomas Wake, two reticent fellows charged with manning the eponymous lighthouse for a four-week period. You can expect friction between two men stuck in a lighthouse for a month, but that’s about as much plot as the film allows – Eggers wallows in the simplicity of his concept, conjuring an ambitious and symbolistic feat through absolute minimalism. Yet, where The Witch was more straightforward plot-wise, Eggers stretches the limits of The Lighthouse’s ambiguity, and still makes it work.
The utter commitment Dafoe and Pattinson devote to their roles is just as commendable as it is chilling to watch. As the tension between their characters grows, both actors deliver an intense rush of ferocity, fully losing their minds as they progress further into the darkness. The chemistry between them is raw and volatile – one moment they are dancing and drinking themselves to a stupor, the next they’re on the verge of bashing each other’s skull in. Between their impeccable performances are an ominous seagull, semen dripping through a grate, Dafoe’s perfectly timed farts, his battle-inducing lobster, a mermaid, and, of course, Egger’s immaculate craft.
A former production designer, Eggers’ attention to detail is meritorious. Every set piece, every word spoken in nearly incomprehensible accents, every frame, is carefully designed; every minute component, drenched in a certain rottenness and filthy dampness, is perfectly placed and acutely utilized to pull you in further into this erratic world. Jarin Blaschke’s stark, yet exquisite black-and-white cinematography intensifies the eeriness, and the 1.19:1 aspect ratio creates a claustrophobic aura that boxes you in with nowhere to go. And then, droning with ominous whispers is Mark Korven’s score, constantly threatening a danger sensed but unseen.
Yet the beauty of The Lighthouse is that in creating the parameters of its horror, it does not seek out supporting elements even within the world it is set. Rather, the psychological disintegration of its characters drives its narrative; Eggers knows that there’s nothing as fear-inducing as the very phantoms in our head. Yet, he teases other conclusions – one stemming from the supernatural, especially – that, when considered critically, begin to seem somewhat plausible. It is this duality that made The Witch such a mind-probing success, and this duality is the very thing that causes a rumination of The Lighthouse long after the credits roll.
Many a film have come along that, out of pure luck and just enough quality, are quickly tagged a ‘masterpiece.’ But The Lighthouse lives up to its much deserved praise. It isn’t a triumph because it just so happens to be a great film; it is a triumph because Eggers makes it one – he’s in absolute control of his craft, and if this is any indication, then he’s only getting started. The Witch brought him to our attention, but The Lighthouse has birthed a legend in the making, and we are witnessing his greatness unfold right before our very eyes.
*Editor’s Note: The Lighthouse screened at the Toronto International Film Festival ’19 as part of Special Presentations.