In the insulated world of Film Twitter – an informal group of users who discuss movies constantly – there has been restless chatter because Martin Scorsese said the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not cinema, equating them to theme park rides. Fans of superhero movies where aghast, while skeptics had no problem with his comments. I bring this up not because I want to hash out the controversy, but because The Lighthouse, the new historical horror film from Robert Eggers, works as both cinema and a theme park ride. Its vision is singular (i.e. only Eggers could have made a film like this), and yet it unfolds like a sensory experience, not something you ponder. Its descent into madness is dizzying in the best possible ways, plus it is a rare treat to watch great actors abandon the pretense of safety and good taste.
Another way to know The Lighthouse is cinema is how its technical specifications tell you more about the film than its plot. Eggers shot the film in black and white with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which means the screen is almost square. There is a claustrophobic feel to every shot, including the vastness of the ocean, so the actors rarely have any space apart. There are only two actors in the film, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattison, and they work as lighthouse keepers in the 1890s (the accompanying distorted siren is constant). They live on a remote island off the New England coastline, and their dialogue has the mannered syntax you would expect from the guy who made The Witch. Dafoe’s character in particular speaks with a thick accent, almost veering into the sea captain character from The Simpson, but his turns of phrase are idiomatic delights.
The great thing about Egger’s approach is how it eludes the confines of summary. I could describe every scene in detail, and that would not do the film justice. Madness interests Eggers more than anything else, and madness by its very nature resists things like sense or time. The opening act is an interesting study of contrasts. Both men are hardened and taciturn, so Eggers puts them in situations where their differences are laid bare. They develop a sense of camaraderie (it is only human nature), but it is a testament to the filmmaking that it’s so involving, even though significant time passes before we learn the names of the characters. Pattison plays Winslow, while Dafoe plays Thomas.
Depending on how you interpret one irksome seagull, a storm is the only significant event that happens in the film. The storm ensures that Winslow and Thomas are marooned, with no boat coming to relieve them of their duties. In its aftermath, Eggers stars to distort the frame, letting shots last a second or two before we can make any sense of what we are seeing. This directly reflects the mental state of the characters, and surrealist imagery only heightens that hopeless feeling. Like The Witch, some of this imagery is transgressive, a cocktail of myth and psychosexual fantasia that will burrow into your mind. It is does not matter whether the violence and Lovecraftian creatures are “real.” They are real to the characters, and the audience by extension, so we’re along for the unhinged ride.
There is a stagey quality to The Lighthouse, and if Eggers was not such a skilled technician, the film could be adapted into a stage play. In fact, it bears a strong semblance to Bug, a little-seen stage adaptation by William Friedkin starring Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd. Like Bug, Eggers’ film creates a sense of alarm because you worry about the actors, not the characters they play. It takes courage to perform without a safety net, to commit yourself to the endless illogic of men who abandon reason. Both Pattison and Dafoe have opportunities for lengthy monologues, and they’re delivered convincingly, like men who believe that bluster is the only way through the hell in which they find themselves. They also have natural chemistry, including tender scenes that nearly veer toward homoeroticism.
The Lighthouse is a triumph of immersion. Its technical aspects work in tandem with the writing/performances, plunging the viewer into a world that is fun to visit, although you’ll be glad you can leave. Winslow and Thomas’ fate are an afterthought because the film is more about the sacrifices they make, intentionally or not, to get there. I’m sure Eggers and his team controlled their film carefully, and yet it feels like we’re watching some deranged forgotten folk art, one that does not fit into our sense of time and reason. That kind of sensory overload is not for everyone: at the end of the day, we are talking about a bizarre black and white art film with two characters and a constrictive aspect ratio. But for anyone stirred by sea shanties or the fearsome power of the ocean, The Lighthouse is a beguiling, sinister beacon.