The Lighthouse: an instant classic

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Photo courtesy of A24 Studios

Few films are released every year that possess storytelling and cinematography that are equally unique, entrancing, challenging and timeless. Some years, no films like this are released. 

It is a rare occasion for someone to leave a theater knowing that the movie they just watched is an instant classic, and that it will be just as mysterious and stimulating to watch 50 years from now. 

Robert Egger’s sophomore film “The Lighthouse” is such a film. 

Egger’s 2015 period-piece horror film “The Witch” surprised its audiences of  teenagers expecting a typical jumpscare-filled horror movie. Rather, it presented a careful and remarkably accurate depiction of a colonial family’s descent into satanic chaos. 

After winning numerous indie filmmaking awards and the coveted Sundance Film Festival Directing Award, Egger faced incredibly high expectations for his next project. 

Expectations mounted even further after Academy Award-nominated Willem Dafoe and Twilight star Robert Pattinson signed on to the project. 

In “The Lighthouse,” Thomas Wake (Dafoe) mans his New England lighthouse. Wake loves his lighthouse and seems to be more attached to it than to any other thing in this world. Ephriam Winslow (Pattinson) arrives as, essentially, a hired hand to do all of the heavy lifting in the operation of the 19th century lighthouse for a month’s time. 

As the two are isolated on the island for increasing amounts of time, Wake grows more and more talkative and reveals himself to be an aspiring Ahab, filled with tall tales of the sea and all of the mystery therein. 

Winslow cares little for Wake’s grandiose speeches and tall tales, thinking him to be nothing more than a sad and obsessed old man. Winslow especially disapproves of Wake’s drinking habit, and refuses to indulge in liquor as most sailors do. 

Weeks pass by and Winslow is devastated when he is not picked up from this desolate, beaming rock by the promised relief. What’s more, a terrible storm blows in, making conditions on the island miserable and marooning the two for much longer than Winslow had bargained for. 

As time grows more and more nebulous and emotions are bottled up longer and longer with no healthy method of release, madness and hallucinations begin to engulf Winslow. Paranoia, fear and hallucinations of sexual aggression and escape begin to overtake the relatively quiet and reliable man. 

Wake, on the other hand, is the same crotchety old drunk, obsessed with his lighthouse, barking down orders to Wilson as if he were a dog and never letting Wilson up to the top level to gaze upon the life-saving, ship-directing jewel. 

The aggression, fear, anger, paranoia and lust within both characters feels as if it is enough to cause either one of them to burst, making for an incredibly tension-filled second and third act. 

Eggers shows us, once again, that he is a filmmaker who is in the business of making instant classics. He  can take eternal questions, concepts, stories and emotions, place them within a context that layers in modern issues and ideas and then direct a film that never reveals too much, or too little, causing viewers to be both intrigued and confronted. 

From the first frames of the film, viewers will understand that Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke do not need any fancy filming tricks or computer-generated effects to create a challenging and intricate experience. Eggers and Blaschke chose to shoot the film in all black-and-white in a 1.19:1 aspect ratio (almost a square image), a vast departure from most films that are shot in color with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio (widescreen). 

The aspect ratio and the coloration of the film (shot on 35mm film), aside from giving the film a classical aesthetic look, challenges viewers to look at “The Lighthouse” as a film out of time, leading audiences to think of eternal concepts from the opening seconds of the movie. 

Dafoe turns in another award-worthy performance as the old Protean wickie, rapidly shifting from a jolly sea-loving fellow to an anal boss to a talkative drunk to a threatening madman with ease. 

Additionally, Pattinson delivers his best performance to date. Pattinson has clearly been underestimated by film buffs who thought him only capable of being a teen girl’s dream boyfriend, spending his acting days smoldering about how no one would ever “get” him.  

Every emotion on the spectrum, from apathy to joy and sheer insanity, is exhibited by Pattinson in this career-defining, Promethean role. 

“The Lighthouse” is not a film for all. Many people simply will not enjoy this experience. Its eternal, undefined questions and proposals, combined with its tension-filled atmosphere and visceral imagery create an experience that cannot be viewed lightly. 

However, those who wish to view one of the best-crafted films of this decade and spend hours mulling over its ideas and propositions should waste no time in seeing a film that will undoubtedly be discussed for decades to come.

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