The Lighthouse was certainly the most overlooked film by the 92nd Academy Awards jury, nominated only for Best Cinematography when it should have been acknowledged in multiple categories, including screenplay, direction, score, performances, and as Best Picture. Alas, horror films don’t do well at the Academy Awards, even clever ones. In the event’s 90-year history, only a handful of such films have earned the recognition they deserve.
Robert Eggers, who wrote and directed The Witch (2015) to critical acclaim, began work on the film as a contemporary interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s last and unfinished work, which was unofficially named the “The Light-House”. However, as great stories do, the narrative evolved as each page was written with his brother Max Eggers, and The Lighthouse became a psychological horror film with elements of unexpectedly funny dark comedy. In part, the film draws on Greek mythology for its symbolism, including the sea-god Proteus and the Titan Prometheus.
The film is set in the late 19th century, where the young Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) joins the cranky old Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) to work at a lighthouse on a tiny island off the coast of New England. The island feels so isolated that you can’t help but feel claustrophobic, in large part due to the soundtrack from Mark Korven and the brilliant work behind the camera from Jarin Blaschke. Watching the film in black-and-white and shot on 35mm is a real treat. Interestingly, the film is also shot with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio. This nearly square ratio adds to the almost maddeningly confined nature of the visuals.
As Winslow is settling in, he finds a tiny scrimshaw of a mermaid. Soon, he begins suffering from waking nightmares of intoxicating mermaids and other fantastical things. He also discovers that Thomas is an aggressive taskmaster, who works him to the bone.
In The Lighthouse, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe are powerhouses that deliver the sort of theatrics you can’t tear your eyes away from for a second
Ephraim pleasures himself to the scrimshaw in his loneliness, but also has visions of a nude Thomas in a dominant position. The sexual tension between the two is obvious with plenty of homoerotic subtext that’s buried under toxic masculinity as a guise for denial.
Ephraim is warned by Thomas not to disturb the seagulls. He is told that they carry the spirits of dead sailors. Unfortunately, he doesn’t pay heed. In a particularly disturbing scene, he beats a seagull to death after it attacks him. Soon, the wind turns on the duo literally, as they slowly battle madness, alcoholism, and mystical elements.
One of the most memorable and unsettling scenes features Moldovan model Valeriia Karaman as a mermaid with a blood-curdling scream. This isn’t your Disney childhood’s mermaid. Rather, it’s a creature straight out of Homer’s Odyssey, who uses her powers of seduction to draw seamen to their horrible deaths.
As Thomas and Thomas (you’ll get it when you see the movie) dive deeper into despair, secrets are unlocked, and their relationship develops sitcom-like bickering. The performances are nothing short of incredible. Bouncing off each other’s energy, both Pattinson and Dafoe are powerhouses that deliver the sort of theatrics you can’t tear your eyes away from for a second. The Lighthouse is their open playground and they weave nothing short of acting magic.
Rated R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some language
Published in Dawn, ICON, June 14th, 2020