Release Date(s)2019 (January 7, 2020)
Studio(s)A24/Regency Enterprises/RT Features (Lionsgate Home Entertainment)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B+
The Lighthouse uses a real-life incident as the jumping-off point for an excursion into the effects of claustrophobia and paranoia on a pair of lighthouse keepers. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and the older Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) arrive by ship for a four-week stint of looking after and maintaining a remote lighthouse. Their relationship doesn’t go well from the start. Wake assigns all the grunt work—cleaning the cistern, stoking a coal furnace, and scrubbing the cabin they share—to Winslow, who is resentful but dutifully obeys. Wake is given to angry outbursts and even toys with the younger man’s feelings, trying to provoke him. But Winslow bites his tongue and counts the days until they are relieved and he can be free of both the island and the unpleasant Wake.
While Wake talks non-stop and favors whiskey, Winslow is tight-lipped and doesn’t drink. When drunk, Wake shows more humanity and a sense of humor as he encourages Winslow to talk about himself. When cold sober, however, Wake is capable of incessant cruelties. Winslow is subjected to psychological and physical torture at the hands of Wake but accepts his lot and looks forward to collecting his salary when his month-long misery is ended and he can move on with his life.
When a great storm rages, the ship carrying their relief crew cannot brave the sea and the two men must remain on the rock alone indefinitely, listening to the sounds of the pounding sea and regular blasts of the foghorn. As times passes, only whiskey eases the loneliness and despair. Their minds start playing tricks, and visions appear to Winslow in the form of a stranded mermaid. They go mad slowly, gradually, until all reason and sense of civility have completely evaporated.
Directed by Robert Eggers and beautifully filmed in black and white by Jarin Blaschke, The Lighthouse was shot in an aspect ratio of 1.19:1, the most commonly used ratio in the silent film era, to create a nearly square screen image. The confined space enhances the claustrophobic nature of the story and emphasizes the physical limitations the men are subjected to. The monochrome cinematography reduces the setting to a dismal, bleak location, and features dramatic use of shadows on the men’s faces. The filmmaking style is reminiscent of German expressionism and 1930s Universal horror films. Not a traditional horror movie, The Lighthouse explores existential horror, as the absence of normal society causes Wake and Winslow to lose their sanity.
Director Eggers eventually shifts gears so that we’re not quite sure what we’re witnessing as he sets up a skewed reality that differs significantly from what we’ve seen. What is real and what is hallucination?
A two-character film is difficult to sustain for close to two hours, but Dafoe and Pattinson are both riveting. Their characters are opposites in almost every way. Ephraim is a refined, taciturn teetotaler. Wake is a vulgar, garrulous drunk. Dafoe has the more flamboyant role, as his Wake lords it over Winslow with devilish pleasure. His personal hygiene is disgusting, he demands complete loyalty, and he uses his seniority over Winslow as a weapon to keep him subservient. Wake makes the rules and will brook no insubordination.
Pattinson’s Winslow is very quiet in the early section of the film, reacting mostly through his expressions and body language. He has a long fuse, which creates considerable suspense. He’s pushed so hard by Wake, we know he’s bound to crack, but when will that occur and how? Scenes of Winslow alone doing hard chores reveal him as strong and determined to make good no matter the task. He lugs a heavy canister of oil up the winding stairs of the lighthouse, only to be told by Wake, who offers no assistance, that he should have used a lighter can and orders him to take the canister back down.
Rated R, The Lighthouse spends its first half establishing a tiresome routine, building tension tighter and tighter until it seems less and less likely that Wake and Winslow will be able to make it to the end of their tenure without severe violence. This brooding exercise in neo-Gothic gloom offers a mesmerizing, ferocious acting duel that’s likely to be remembered when Oscar nominations are considered.
The Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p high definition resolution, is presented in the aforementioned aspect ratio of 1.19:1. Black bars appear on the sides of the screen to accommodate the smaller format. This emphasizes that not only have the remote location and the storm made the men prisoners, but also that they are crowded into this claustrophobic space. Even when Winslow is outside and looks off at the horizon, there’s a sense of suffocation. In many sequences, the film resembles horror films of the 1930s with their rich atmospheres and a sense of eeriness. The black-and-white cinematography is rich and lustrous, with beautiful images of moonlight shimmering on a calm sea, artful compositions with light and shadow, and low-angle illumination, giving the characters a sinister appearance. Visually striking throughout, the film harkens back to German expressionism and silent movies with its monochromatic palette and square screen. Eggers is excellent at introducing surrealistic touches gradually as the men spend more and more time together. Whether real or imagined, these images are disturbingly hypnotic.
The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Spanish subtitles are available as well as English subtitles for the hearing impaired. The film’s sound design is essential in establishing the atmospheric milieu. From the constant noise of waves to the endless roar of heavy machinery, the film contains loud and uncanny sounds. The foghorn, in particular, is heard throughout—an ominous, creepy accompaniment to two men going about their work far from civilization. Sound designer Damian Volpe combines these elements to provide an intense and immersive soundscape. Being so close to the foghorn every time it goes off can be maddening, and Ephraim is especially vulnerable to its monotonous, insistent spell. Haunting with a disturbing rhythm, the sounds near the lighthouse are a formidable force that imbed themselves into the brain.
Bonus materials on the Blu-ray release include the featurette The Lighthouse: A Dark & Stormy Tale, deleted scenes, and audio commentary with director/co-writer Robert Eggers. A paper insert within the package contains a Digital code.
The Lighthouse: A Dark & Stormy Tale – This behind-the-scenes mini-documentary is divided into three sections:
1. Myths Behind the Madness – Director/co-writer/producer Robert Eggers read stories about lighthouses and lighthouse keepers for research. He decided on a period setting, basing his film loosely on a lighthouse in Wales in the early 19th century with two keepers named Thomas, one older, one younger, and a bad storm that occurred. Willem Dafoe liked the script, its period dialogue, and interesting action for his character. Old Thomas is an archetype of the “old salt” and Dafoe inhabits that character. The script begins seriously, introduces elements of humor, and eventually becomes bizarre and other-worldly. Eggers wanted the film to be shot in black and white because the look he wanted could not be achieved in color. The monochromatic cinematography also made the actors look “more weathered.” Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke discusses special lenses used to achieve certain effects. Research was done on European and American nautical folklore. Costume designer Linda Muir based costumes on vintage photos. With black and white film, texture and contrast become very important. She shows and discusses costumes worn in the film. Every building was made for the film, including the 70-foot lighthouse. Production designer Craig Lathrop referred to lighthouse keepers’ manuals to guide his team. Sets were designed to be claustrophobic.
2. Enchantment in the Light – The collaboration between director and cinematographer is discussed. Black and white film is difficult to work with because it requires far more light than color film. In a scene in which Thomas and Ephraim sit at a small table, supposedly with no light source but a kerosene lantern, a 600-watt halogen bulb had to be used to provide the illumination required. Pattinson is referred to as a good physical performer. Dafoe refers to the film as a psychological thriller. The actors had a brief rehearsal period, mostly to block out actor and camera movements. According to Dafoe, “Visual language led the way.”
3. Figments of Imagination – Director Eggers gave actors freedom. He liked when actors surprised him. Filming conditions were difficult, but the actors enjoyed the project which offset the physical discomfort. Sound was an important contributor to the mood of the film, with the relentless foghorn, waves breaking against rocks, wind, and rain emphasizing the punishing environment. Eggers sums up the featurette by stating about directing, “If people like what I’ve done, I can potentially do another one.”
Audio Commentary – Director/co-writer Robert Eggers filmed The Lighthouse on the southern tip of Nova Scotia on volcanic rock. All buildings and interior sets were built for the film, including the 70-foot lighthouse. The black and white film stock hasn’t changed since the 1950s. A great deal of light was required for images to register properly. The giant Fresnel lens for the lighthouse was constructed for the film from designs for actual lighthouse lenses. Because of the lens’ magnifying power, a single 100-watt bulb was enough for the beam to be seen from afar. The film uses more modern lighting equipment. Language and rules of syntax proved important to suggest the early 19th century. The stunt coordinator worked to get all shots safely with minimum risk to actors. Eggers believes the role of Thomas Wake is Dafoe’s best screen performance to date because of his mastery of language and the variety of emotions he conveyed. Exposition is required in the dialogue to provide narrative clarity, but ambiguities leave lots of questions. Certain difficult scenes went off so smoothly that they elicited spontaneous applause from the crew. Both Dafoe and Pattinson were up for anything. In a scene in which Thomas and Ephraim speak softly, camera noise became an issue. Dialogue coaches worked with both actors. A fisherman—an “old timer”—recorded some of Pattinson’s dialogue to help him master the necessary accent and cadence. The comments read from the log book come from actual lighthouse journals. An especially difficult scene that involves blood and was done in a single shot is explained in detail. The huge Fresnel lens at the top of the lighthouse is described as “something otherworldly.” Filters and lighting changes alter the appearance of Pattinson when he looks at the Fresnel lens. A shot late in the film featuring seagulls was difficult to shoot because only three of the gulls used were trained.
Deleted Scenes – Four scenes removed from the completed film are shown: Sweeping the Galley, Old Crying, Young Undressing, and Galley and Sleeping Quarters. These scenes are redundant or unnecessary and have been cut to keep the pace brisk, with tension steadily rising.
– Dennis Seuling