An imagistic, disorientating swashbuckle of gothic saturation with machismo-exploratory themes, glorious black-and-white chiaroscuric visuals, and career performances by its sea-chanteying central Dafoe & Pattinson icon-duo. 9.1/10.
Plot Synopsis: Two lighthouse keepers try to maintain their sanity while living on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s.
*Possible spoilers ahead*
Review: The Witch. Robert Eggers changed the game of modern horror with the brutality-steeped, slow-burning dark magic simulacrum back in 2016 – and now he’s back for seconds. Turning his sights from colonial 1600’s Salem-heathenism to 1890’s sailor’s culture with Greek mythological undertones, he has crafted yet another strikingly-imaginative masterstroke that – in our opinion – has established him with fellow-horror auteurs also releasing their sophomore entries this year: Aster’s Midsommar and Peele’s Us as three of the most exciting new filmmaking talents to watch. An imagistic, disorientating swashbuckle of gothic saturation with machismo-exploratory themes, glorious black-and-white chiaroscuric visuals, and career performances by its sea-chanteying central Dafoe & Pattinson icon-duo, The Lighthouse has taken horror to a bold new place: cold shorelines of New England.
The horror imagism and cinematographic glory. Most glorious from its opening inverse-filtered shot is one thing: black-and-white, old-world visual majesty – captured by a determined Eggers-Blashcke duo that braved stormy Nova Scotia nights and used a non-digital Kodak Double-X stock to achieve a distant photography technique of micro-contrast to give the film its brazen look. I cannot describe how immensely powerful it is to behold – invoking the greatest time in moviemaking history of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but with a grittier, dusty flair that melds hand-in-hand with its premise for a wildly-original revisionist feel. The chiaroscuro is striking with Jarin Blashcke’s cinematographical stylism absolutely *sensational* – as we traverse textbook camera techniques from revolving long takes to intricate tracking shots up the shaft of lighthouse amidst spiraling staircases to pans back-and-forth for a disorientating, rain-pattered, wave-crashing drug trip that should earn Blashcke an Academy Award this February on technique alone. Then we get to shot construction: the film is brimming with intensely-disturbing canvases in a classically-Eggers atmospherically-escalating slow-burn of macabric proportions. Boldly embracing its sailor premise full-on – with a Greek mythological touch exploring everything that’s beguiled or scared us about the mysterious depths of the briny sea throughout history – our senses are assaulted with imagism of everything from sirens’ calls/temptation to Kraken tentacles to Poseidon curses to blinding light radiating like diamonds from Fresnel lenses to demonic sailor-purgatory seagulls picking at the innards of live corpses. The psychological horror is accompanied by physicality as well like in Wake’s Torrance-like ‘Shining’ axe chase and attacks, for a film that is exceptionally-unsettling in gothic-saturated magnificence.
The performances & hypnotic madness-descent. Dafoe & Pattinson are a match made in (arthouse)-heaven. These two masochistic perfect strangers elevate the film into masterwork-territory with powerful performances steeped in lunatic insanity you can’t tell what’s up, down, or real by the end. Dafoe delivers what is – as it seems I’m starting to saying yearly after his jaw-dropping turn as Van Gogh in 2018’s At Eternity’s Gate establishing him as one of the world’s best actors – one of his greatest career performances as irritable old man Thomas Wake with dark, mysterious aura shrouding his every movement across this puppeteering plot. Pattinson plays beautifully off his lead as industrious wickie Ephraim Winslow, with sweat soaking his brow and a backstory in need of release from its freedom-deprived deep-down stuffing that makes for a wild ride once his ‘beans are [finally] spilled’. It is a veritable treat to see the two galavanting around drunk sea-chanteying or staring each other down with the most lunatic of intents as a display of some of the greatest range I’ve seen in a duo performance – as both are immaculately character-developed across the 2 hours, from disdainful bunkmates thrown together on a rock to swashbuckling, brotherly-bonded best buddies haunted by a fluttering madness radiating from a supernatural source on the island (Lighthouse works as a companion piece with The Witch in that regard both in animal iconoclasm & magic source for all the psychological torment its characters endure) that drives them apart & insane.
The masculinity themes. The film is steeped in complex and important themes exploring what it means to be a man, both by historical – and today’s – standards. Brutality, machismo, homoeroticism, pride, hard day’s work, purpose, camaraderie, providing for one’s family, & brotherhood are amongst the resonant themes juggled by this masterpiece screenplay that spans the full gamut of men’s driving factors, programming, societal expectations, and spectrums. Eggers takes a magnifying glass to what we define as masculinity – both the taboo and vital or even civilization-paving parts – for a full in-depth look at the subject matter drenched with intensity, realism, and philosophically-waxing intellectualism. Equally as of note in the mix paralleling the power of the direction is the booming, airhorn-heavy score that not only dots normalcy and the horror with a systemic rhythm of foreboding pads and subwoofer-shaking brass punches, but builds the foundation for the dread-soaked atmospherics from the first frame our duo sets foot on the boat over for one of the smartest and most inventive uses of sound as dense as its existential dissertation.
Flaws in The Lighthouse include a dramatically-overblown final act and bizarre keyhole framing in visuals. What’s instantly visible from the film’s opening – in addition to the glorious ‘micro-contrast’ and chiaroscuro – is that a solid 1/3 of the shot seems to be missing from every frame. I was convinced this was a theater-error that would be corrected over the film after a bus boy came in and checked the lens, but I was wrong: literally the entire periphery of the shot is omitted in every second of the entire scarefest. Perhaps it was due to the camera used, perhaps it was on purpose to emulate a distant shot style, but it is undoubtedly distracting and maddening feeling like you’re being cheated out of 1/3 of the film in entirety and viewing all its events through a keyhole. Nostalgia or subversion should not come at expense of the experience of the film. The final act is also way-overblown and overdramatic being a solid 10-15 min overlong and losing much of its atmospheric build-up reaching peak intensity during the storm in a chaotic conundrum that ends well at the lighthouse’s peak, but could’ve been far shortened for a smoother finale.
Overall, Robert Eggers’ sophomore entry is a wildly-original, complex display creatively taking intense psychological terror to the briny seas. An imagistic, disorientating swashbuckle of gothic saturation with machismo-exploratory themes, glorious black-and-white chiaroscuric visuals, and career performances by its sea-chanteying central Dafoe & Pattinson icon-duo, The Lighthouse cements its mastermind directorial talent as one of the great new minds of this genre’s era.
Official CLC Score: 9.1/10