Descend into Madness with “The Lighthouse”

Descend into Madness with “The Lighthouse” October 30, 2019

 

The lighthouse looms menacingly.

Robert Eggers’ second feature film, The Lighthouse, is a kaleidoscopic descent into madness that is as much fun as it is disturbing. Egger’s previous film, The Witch, was fraught with family peril and an ever-present sense of impending doom. That same atmospheric dread is present in The Lighthouse, but Eggers has pared away the complexity of family dynamics to reveal something altogether more raw, immediate, and disorienting. 

Egger’s choice to film in black and white and in an archaic aspect ratio is immediately justified in the film’s opening moments. The screen is a square window into the film’s terrifying psychodrama. Something about the lack of widescreen had me leaning forward, entranced by the dramatic imagery and anticipating what may lie just out of frame. The impending isolation of the film’s characters, the wall of fog which closes in on the island as they make their landing, the painterly composition of each frame, all of these elements lock into place as naturally as they would had the film been produced at the height of German Expressionism. It is immediately apparent, however, that Eggers intends to blend the iconic visual language of films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Dryer’s Vampyr with a healthy dose of humor and all of the brutality of contemporary horror.

The result is a grotesque chimaera of a film which unfurls and contorts in such a way that the audience is drawn into the bizarre spectacle, even as it jolts between moments of terror and hilarity with a frequency and abruptness that defies comprehension. This effect develops early on in the film. Assessing his new lodgings, Robert Pattinson’s character creeps through the dilapidated house. The booming horn of the lighthouse roars like a beast as the film’s sole location is established. Tension builds as Pattinson’s unnamed character registers the reality of his new living situation. As he leans into darkened door frames, obscured in shadow, we expect him to be confronted with some sort of eldritch horror. Instead, he bumps his head on a low ceiling. Already steeped in suspense only minutes into the film, I felt myself and the rest of the audience lurch in response to the jump scare turned sight gag. 

Tensions rise high.

The unpredictable tone of The Lighthouse is so obviously intentional that it can’t be read as a deficiency of the filmmaker. This is, after all, a movie about two men completely losing control. The experience of watching The Lighthouse is suitably chaotic. Like the plot and visual presentation, the sound design frequently defies logic. The blare of the horn and the squawking of gulls dwarf the voices of the actors, and the roar of the ocean soaks every scene in dread. For a film which takes place in one confined location and features only a handful of characters across its entire run time, its elements work together to produce a frightening and urgent momentum. 

The intensity of the film’s performances can not be understated. Willem Dafoe’s wild-eyed gaze as he spontaneously recites poetry about the sea flits between amusing and menacing. Meanwhile, Pattinson’s sense of reality slowly crumbles as his isolation and paranoia grow, and the weather bears down on the tiny island. These actors are a joy to watch, and Eggers’ audacious vision would have surely fallen flat without these powerhouse performances, both of which are worthy of attention, come awards season.

Dafoe waxes Shakespearean about the sea.

The Lighthouse is one of the most surprising movies I’ve watched in quite a while. One typically knows what to expect from the horror genre. Likewise, the tendency to compare a film to its director’s previous work, even when their filmography is in its early stages, had me anticipating a certain kind of movie. The Lighthouse is not that kind of movie. In fact, it is hard to pin down just what sort of movie The Lighthouse is. The only thing I know for sure is that I enjoyed the ride.


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