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Blu-ray Review: The Lighthouse

January 22, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Robert Eggers established himself as a filmmaker to watch with his 2015 debut The Witch, a period piece horror movie set in the 1600s that played with a moody aesthetic and a strong sense of atmosphere.

Eggers has more than lived up to this early promise with his even better sophomore feature The Lighthouse, delivering a beguiling black and white nightmare fuelled by a pair of wild and staggering performances from Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as men going insane in isolation.

The film is set in the late 1800s on a remote island in New England, where lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) are stationed for four weeks. The grizzled Thomas is the older of the two men and the one in charge, a veteran lighthouse keeper who almost seems to take perverse delight in barking orders at the taciturn Ephraim, a former lumberjack coming up from Canada who took the job as a wickie because he was in need of work.

Ephraim is tasked with cleaning their living quarters including emptying the camber pots, but the one job he is forbidden from doing is climbing the steps and lighting the lamp, which Thomas insists on doing himself. Thomas seems in tune with the mysterious ways of the island, but Ephraim struggles to cope with the demands of the job and the seagulls that torment him, while also growing increasingly annoyed with his boss’s dinnertime folk tales and alcohol consumption, not to mention his incessant farting. As a terrible storm approaches, the two men are trapped together, with no reprieve from the elements or each other.

Thomas warns his young charge that it’s “bad luck to kill a seabird”, as they are said to carry the souls of deceased sailors. But Ephraim inevitably breaks this rule, at which point all hell starts to break loose. It would be hard to describe everything that transpires in The Lighthouse, a film that is rich with folklore and encapsulates us with its foreboding atmosphere. Not everything is explained, but it’s not meant to be, either. The film has the feel of a strange dream, working as an immersive audio and visual experience with at times hallucinatory imagery, and a darkly comic streak that adds to the unique and very specific tone of the piece.

Modelled after vintage photography from the late 19th century, the cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, who also shot The Witch for Eggers, is one of the defining aspects of the film. Shot in black and white on 35mm film, and framed in a square 1.19:1 aspect ratio, the moody grey aesthetic of The Lighthouse helps transport us to the time period in which it is set, marked by an orthochromatic colour palette that offers rich, inky blacks and weathered skin tones. The film recently received a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, an honour that is very well deserved.

The film was shot in the outskirts of Atlantic Canada, with the cast and crew facing off against the elements in real life throughout the gruelling springtime shoot. This authenticity couldn’t have been replicated, and really heightens the stormy, Maritime aesthetic of the film. The production design is exceptional, with the crew building a 70-foot tall, fully operational lighthouse in Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia specifically for the film, complete with a working lamp. The film’s images are matched by its brilliant, all-encompassing sound design that mixes in pounding rain, crashing waves, an incessant foghorn and Mark Korvan’s score to delirious effect.

What does it all mean? Well, there are multiple interpretations you can bring to the story. Eggers has said of his film that “nothing good ever happens when two men are trapped together in a giant phallus,” and the homoerotic tension that exists between the two characters adds to the push and pull of their dynamic. Whether by virtue of isolation or long-repressed desires, a sort of psychosexual chemistry comes to develop between Thomas and Ephraim, which neither man is willing to admit or act upon, furthering their descent into insanity.

While The Lighthouse is a stripped down chamber piece that unfolds mainly in tight quarters and plays almost entirely as a two-hander between these men, it’s captivating to watch, thanks to the brilliant performances of Dafoe and Pattinson. The two actors play off each other extremely well, elevating each other at every possible opportunity, and it’s a treat to watch them tear up the screen. The film has shades of David Lynch’s more surreal works, while furthering the development of Eggers’s own aesthetic as an artist, adding up to a deeply strange, genuinely unique and often transfixing experience.

The Blu-ray comes with a surprisingly hefty helping of bonus features, starting with a commentary track by Eggers and the extended featurette The Lighthouse: A Dark & Stormy Tale, a surprisingly in-depth, nearly forty minute look at the making of the film covering everything from its early development and the attention to period detail in the costumes, to what sort of lenses Blaschke used. This is followed by the shorter featurette Making of the Lighthouse, which plays like an extension of it, as well as a selection of other brief featurettes and a few deleted scenes. A fine package all around.

The Lighthouse is a VVS Films release. It’s 109 minutes and rated 14A.

Street Date: January 14th, 2020

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