To say that The Lighthouse is unique and unlike any film in recent memory is a hard notion to dismiss, whether you enjoyed it or hated it. This nightmare-inducing piece of art is a rarity, a gift from the goddess of film, and as such, its delicious platter of audio-visual immersion is to be experienced rather than something to simply watch. It is slow,. the plot thin, but given every other aspect of the movie is perfect, the simple narrative becomes a non-factor.
The thin plot is this: two men travel to a remote island to watch over and maintain the lighthouse that stands there. There isn’t much more to add. But the film has other ideas and adds so much it is almost overwhelming.
Willem Dafoe plays Thomas, an older man who enjoys his drink and consequently has a manner of speech that almost makes him unrecognisable, his words sometime impossible to make out.
Robert Pattinson, who is proving to be one of the best American actors working prolifically, plays the younger Winslow. He has a slightly shy demeanour and at first is weary of Thomas. But as he learns more about about him, he stands up to the casual insults thrown his way. Most importantly though, neither of their personalities are static.
Both men slowly lose important personality traits, moral beliefs and values that are sucked away by… what? The lighthouse itself? The ghosts of sailors who now reside inside many seagulls, according to Thomas that is. Maybe the mermaid that Winslow saw but never confessed to Thomas stole their personalities.
Whatever it is that causes their drastic change in personality, neither seem to realise it. Appropriately then, the two men gradually develop new beliefs and values. But these alterations are far from positive: as some of the changes mirror the events developing on the island and in and around the lighthouse itself, as if possessed. Whatever the case may be, the character development is uniquely strong and importantly, it is believable, regardless of the dark atmosphere that is slowly building, aided by many choices by the filmmaker.
The theme of utter isolation, among others, can be enough to drive any person crazy. This isolation is not simply an emotional or societal feeling, though these are certainly present. More importantly though is the geographical isolation of the small island. These different types of isolation play a part in where the film will move forward.
When the two finally realise just how isolated they are, unable to see anything but the ocean stretching past the horizon in every direction, the tone as well as the soundtrack changes appropriately. The lighthouse that they have been maintaining, perched on this small island, suddenly looks fragile despite the consistent sound of its horn: a deep and unsettling sound that literally sounds like the death of a giant whale.
This physical isolation is brilliantly captured by Eggers and his DP Jarin Blasch both when the two men see the light of the lighthouse in the distance, eventually followed by the building and island coming into view. Even more effective is when the boat that brought them to the island sails away into the distance and eventually disappears over the horizon.
It isn’t long until the feeling of loneliness and isolation wash over the immaculately shot black and white film while using the rare 1.19:1 ‘Movietone’ ratio used only in the late ‘20’s and early 30’s when film transitioned from silence to sound – this maybe is another nod to the events of the film: It begins in a peaceful manner, but events march downhill as the two men become far from silent. They are stranded, and a heavy thunderstorm that is again not silent prevents the boat due to pick them up.
This cramped ratio also creates an eerie feeling of claustrophobia and impending doom, as if the wide black bars down either side of the screen are going to move inwards, crushing everything until the movie ceases to exist. While the film takes place in the 1800’s, it is a 2019 release that looks 80 years old, further separating it from anything else.
All the relatively different techniques used add layer upon layer of atmosphere that surround the island and the two men; an atmosphere thicker than tar. The two men try to decide what they will do given their ride back home isn’t coming anytime soon. As the storm somehow becomes worse, the interactions between the two men become magnetic and impossible not to watch. The chemistry they share couldn’t be more palpable.
This film is very reminiscent of old Ingmar Bergman films in some regards, specifically The Hour of the Wolf, and to a lesser extent, Persona: as all three are dripping with an overwhelming feeling of dread, with characters becoming unsure of reality itself as well as their own personalities.
The Lighthouse though separates itself from these Bergman films, and almost anything else it could be compared to, thanks to the final act, which uses the soundtrack perfectly to amplify the final scenes, these final tracks a perfect companion to the incredibly tense and unsettling last act.
Classical type instruments are turned on their head and are used to create an audible nightmare. This, combined with sudden, loud crescendos using high, dissonant chords are perfect for the job.
The composer of this soundtrack, Mark Korven, must be praised for this work, each track ideal for the scene(s) that it accompany , such as those above, as well as early tracks which incorporate that deep, dark sound of the lighthouse horn, almost a warning of what is to come.
Listen to it without the film, and you will hear what is essentially classical music written to sound like a gift for Satan himself.
A shout out must go to the awesome Thomas J of digitalshortbread.com, who made me aware of this film and assured me that I would love it. Well, I owe you a thank you mate, as yet again you were spot on. In your review you seemed certain that this will sit atop your favourite films of the year, and I must concur. It is a perfect film. Your mention of his next project has already got me excited too. Only two films, and the man has achieved perfection. Whatever comes next, I shall be first in line.
Fun fact: The lighthouse and living quarters next to it were built from scratch specifically for this film.
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