The Lighthouse, dir. Robert Eggers, 2019
As a psychological thriller, The Lighthouse crawls under your skin in ways many other films in this wide-reaching genre simply don't. It's both a deeply sweeping visual feast and a highly disturbing evocation of madness. The choice by Eggers to deploy the box-like 1:19:1 aspect ratio and to film in various gradations of black and white film stock is an inspired aesthetic decision which immerses the viewer into the perpetual claustrophobia of its central protagonist's guilt-steeped paranoia. Combined with the lilting yet cryptically arcane sailor-slang dialogue and its multi-faceted allusions to a plethora of sea mythologies and marine literature and you find yourself rooted in a deeply stylised vision of hell.
The unrelenting bleakness of the 'rock', pummeled by a near continual tempest onslaught, drenches the drama in notions of doom from the very first shot: a grey, gravelly approach to a remote lighthouse island on a tender boat which will not be returning for at least four weeks. The island is physical isolation personified, but it's oppositely also the equivalent of a psychological open plain because, as soon becomes apparent, the mind is given over to what most tortures it when removed to such locus extremis. Robert Pattinson's Ephraim Winslow (real name Thomas Howard) is on the run from his demons but it's likely he has encountered that demon come to life in the form of Willem Dafoe's Thomas Wake. Or alternatively Wake is Howard's dark conscience come alive to stalk him: the fact both characters share the same Christian name and 'Wake' stirs to life Howard's sense of guilt is possible. At one point Wake blatantly asks Howard whether he is just a 'figment of his imagination.' Wake is also 'awakened' to the full radiance of the light, the ultimate truth, a redemptive power, cleansing him nakedly in its transcendental glow, which Howard, viewing this always from below, continually struggles in vain to achieve, mired in the filth, labour and degradation which is to be his soul's punishment. Interestingly there are also shots of Howard marching a wheelbarrow with coal up the rocks or barrels of oil up the stairs of the lighthouse, all in vain, possibly echoes of Sisyphus carrying out his pointless chores?
Other myths abound in less than deft touches - most notably that of Prometheus, Poseidon, the sirens, the mermaids and the seabirds - which, in a film so intentionally allegorical and with such an unapologetic artistic template, did not bother me but rather enthralled me. Every frame is beautifully, staggeringly conceived. There is also overt religious symbolism: the lamp of the lighthouse akin to a sacred tabernacle housing the true presence of God which only certain ordained high priests (Wake) can ever be permitted to bask in its blinding, overwhelming force. This might explain why Wake is always so protective over it and why Howard is ultimately rejected from it at the end. John Delville's erotically charged painting of Prometheus is well re-imagined at the end of the film, but more pertinently too is Sascha Schneider's Hypnosis which contextualises not only the homoerotic undertone of the duo's sparring relationship, as does the not too subtle phallic metaphor of the lighthouse itself and its ecstasy-giving orgasmic powers, but also the levels of control which thematically underpins of the script.
Indeed, at its core, this is a human story which unfolds through the classic struggle for power between two male rivals. The young pretender is seen as a threat to the old timer; the old timer does whatever he can to resist being usurped, resorting to sadism, cruelty, pettiness and deceit along the way. The descent into madness occurs when the playing field becomes more level, when control can no longer be administered so finitely, when the underling challenges the authority of his master, and order turns to chaos. In this depiction, the film is compelling, helped by utterly compelling central performances.
The sound editing, however, is what holds the centre of the taut psychological narrative together. The continual blasts of the lighthouse's fog-horn are deeply affecting, coming as they do almost from the very depths of inner torment. The lashings of water, the wind, the piercing cries of sea gulls and the shrieks of the mermaid's sexual enticement all combine to thrilling effect. This is a beautiful and haunting film.
Sasha Schneider's Hypnosis (left), the inspiration for Robert Egger's depiction of power and psychological control between men in isolation in The Lighthouse (right).