Unlike many of his modern peers, there’s something appreciable about Robert Eggers’ unfussy approach to the horror genre. The Witch might just be the most frightening horror film of this decade – incredible, given that it feels pulled from a different era of filmmaking altogether. But what made that film work wonders in its bid to crawl under your skin was the rich thematic material, of religion and religiosity, that ultimately made the film so mortifying beyond just its slow-burn, thoughtfully crafted visual storytelling. It’s the rare horror film that made it hard for me to sleep at night after an initial viewing, and even though I’ve gone back to it a few times since then, it’s always been with trepidation.
The experience isn’t quite the same with Eggers’ sophomore feature, The Lighthouse. Firstly, while the film is often very harrowing and ends disturbingly after a fever pitch final act, it’s hard to classify this one as a horror film. In the absence of monsters, or at least concrete ones, the film feels much more like a thriller of sorts. Think of it less as a ghost story and more a sailor’s proverb. The genre alone doesn’t mean the film has been robbed of its ability to distress – one of the most frightening films ever made is Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, a procedural bolstered by an uncanny ability to make the unseen feel all the more distressing. No, the problem with The Lighthouse is that Eggers shows he has a knack for technical innovation, but has forgotten to give any of his bizarre images any real meaning. By the end, you’ve gone through an experience, oftentimes very engaging and admirably grotesque, but what for? That remains a mystery.
Much like The Witch, Eggers deploys a slow-burn narrative for The Lighthouse. While there’s not much plot here, there’s a tight sense of tension that increasingly builds until an explosive, very abstract finale. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) have been assigned to oversee a foreboding lighthouse on a lonely, rocky island that’s seemingly stranded in the middle of the ocean. Much of the plot falls into watching the men repeat routines and patterns, initially with little variation, before a storm brews and throws everything into chaos. Winslow is forced to do most of the dirty work, like cleaning the cistern or scrubbing the slimy floors, while Wake orders him around and refuses to let him work atop the lighthouse, claiming that the light belongs to him.
Naturally, it’s only a matter of time before tension builds between Winslow and Wake, resulting in a power struggle that as much about control as it is about masculine dominance. Moored on this island, locked away from the rest of the world because of a turbulent storm, the film shows both men backsliding into some kind of primality, governed more by their animalistic desire to survive. It makes sense that both men would want to usurp control from another. While Winslow is initially subservient to Wake, though deeply jealous of his strange and almost zealous relationship with the light atop the tower, it’s when he finally gives into Wake’s assertion that he share a drink over their dinner one night that the lines blur. Both men fall into a drunken stupor, and Winslow realizes it’s the only state of mind where the two will ever get along. They’re equal, even if briefly. Even though things revert to normalcy in the morning, after that first night of drinking, Winslow has changed. He becomes more defiant, more outspoken, and more willing to push back against Wake’s dominance over him.
In a bid to avoid spoilers, since the film is relatively new and hasn’t expanded nationwide, it’ll suffice to say that the film’s unusual finale, governed more by the harsh intercutting of phantasmagoric imagery that could be real or could be fantasy, comes as a result of Winslow and Wake’s routine being completely shattered apart. When Wake feels he is losing control over Winslow, he takes up gaslighting the man, lying about what Winslow has done in order to shrink his confidence, playing upon Winslow’s own weak mind. Unfortunately, this opens up a can of worms all its own. Now, the film takes on a rubber reality of sorts, and it never becomes clear who is telling the truth, Winslow or Wake, nor does the film make an extended pitch to try and convince you that it’s one side over the other. The linearity of the narrative is frustratingly obtuse, and by the time the finale rolls around, when the film makes an odd bid for the light represents, the experience proves itself to be draining but not particularly enlightening.
But if Eggers’ plot falters towards the end, he continues to utilize nature in a very effective way. Horror is governed by nature, because it’s important to understand the natural so that the unnatural feels all the more abominable. Especially important in both of Eggers’ films is man’s relationship with nature. In The Witch, the family’s isolation from society and their closeness to the wilderness invites a terrifying descent into darkness. In The Lighthouse, the two characters have only one another for human connection – everything else is nature, and unlike The Witch, it’s outwardly unforgiving here. The island is a rocky monument filled with angry gulls and constantly bombarded by rain. It’s hell on earth. Being forced to work here is damnation.
But to try and fight back against the elements invites a worse fate. Wake tells Winslow to leave the gulls alone, because the souls of sailors are within them. But Winslow is driven mad by a particular seagull with only one eye that seems to mock him, and eventually kills it. Immediately after, a storm rolls in that strands Winslow and Wake, who are never relieved of their duties. And then there’s Winslow strange, perverse dreams of sexuality that involve a mermaid, an unnatural creature who is part human and part sea creature. The spell this phantom creature seems to cast on Winslow, who uses his sexual experiences as a private way to try and fight against isolation, only binds his fate to this forsaken rock even more. After all, the sirens from mythology were known to use their seductive songs to lure sailors to their deaths.
It’s a pretty faultless film from a technical standpoint. Eggers’ use of old school filmmaking techniques, from the boxy aspect ratio to the black-and-white photography, feel like surprisingly natural choices for the kind of story he’s telling. The decision to use only natural lighting for The Witch proved an effective one, giving that film a chilly color palette and plenty of discomforting dark borders. Presenting The Lighthouse with grainy, shadowy cinematography and a claustrophobic aspect ratio lends to the feeling that everything we’re watching could very well just be a sailor’s equivalent to a ghost story. But that’s as far as the story goes. Eggers mostly avoids the sophomore slump, and yet The Lighthouse is frustratingly diffuse, content to be alarming on the surface but never reaching for something disturbing on a thematic level.