Landon Roberts, Contributing Writer
A new nautical myth finds form in Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse,” a psychotic breach into mania that echoes long after the credits.
Every great myth gifts insight into the faults of humanity, whether it be greed, lust or blind anger. “The Lighthouse” acts like a buckshot, puncturing the greatest errors in humanity and leaving a space for reflection.
The claustrophobic film about cabin fever has a simple enough plot surrounding two lighthouse keepers, Ephraim Winslow, played by Robert Pattinson, and Thomas Wake, played by Willem Dafoe, tending to their duties on a mysterious island.
Their repetitive jobs become unbearable to watch pretty early on in the film — but that seems to be the point. The nearly two hour run time uses these quiet moments to show the toll that this lonesome, bleak island takes on Winslow.
The sense of cabin fever Winslow feels on this rock slowly builds to explosive moments of anger and jealousy towards Wake. At times these explosions bear moments of comedic genius, while at other moments they create terrifying amalgamations with paranoia through horrific imagery.
Projections of Winslow beating a seagull to death reverberate due to his intense stare that reveals a crack in the psyche. That one stare bursts into a psychotic break near the end of the first act that will make the audience question their own sanity.
Pattinson is not alone in this intense performance. Dafoe brings a uniquely charming sailor to life through a transcendent performance. The way he delivers each line with jolly charisma makes Winslow’s narrative completely unreliable, building the suspicion and tension to an unprecedented level.
Once the film gets into oddball insanity near the second act, the tension is released into a burst of sporadic drunken nightmares that show the two men in frantic moments of sexually fueled anger that are intercut by peaceful moments of love. These bipolar drunken moments are hilarious, terrifying and most importantly — beautiful.
Nothing presented this year tops the editing choice to show the two men in a straight-up brawl followed by a jump cut to them embracing each other. This embrace is paired with them swaying to the beat of waves crashing against the rocky island resulting in a touching moment of intimacy among the insanity.
The sounds that inhabit the island make up the majority of the score and add to the sense of being stranded. The constant blaring of a boat’s horn can be heard but never seen, resulting in a false sense of escape from the insanity that only heightens the paranoia.
That’s Eggers’ entire goal with “The Lighthouse.” Every aesthetic choice makes you experience what’s going through the two characters’ minds. The aspect ratio is a tight vertical frame that mimics the towering lighthouse where they reside, and the claustrophobic nature makes you beg for a wide shot that never comes.
While the framing is tight, Eggers’ use of blocking explores every inch of the island, making every shot embrace beauty in the madness. The close-ups on Dafoe paint portraits of a weathered sailor, while the close-ups on Pattinson enhance the frightened doe eyes of a young buck that craves freedom.
As the intensity ramps up, so does the use of camera movements that disorient the viewer. As the alcohol slides down their throats, the camera tilts to the angle of the ever-present bottle flailing around with the drunken sailors as they dance to nautical tunes.
This anxiety and manic paranoia culminates in the finale that is both tragic and mythological with parallels to Greek tragedies.
“The Lighthouse” is one of the best movies to depict the slow deterioration of the psyche since “The Shining.” It’s a sickening, eye-opening myth that will leave you dumbfounded through its horror and beauty.
This film review is part of Landon Roberts’ coverage from the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival. “The Lighthouse” releases Oct. 18.