American Literary Review presents Grackles: Two editorial staffers squawk over a film.

Grackles review The Lighthouse

Directed by Robert Eggers

Reviewed by Scott Ray and Charlie Riccardelli 

The Lighthouse, Robert Egger’s follow-up to his widely celebrated premiere, The Witch, is a film about two “wickies”—lighthouse keepers on a remote island somewhere in New England around the turn of the nineteenth century. A spectacularly crusty Willem Dafoe plays the old-hand-keeper Wake, a former sailor who keeps the splendor of the top deck and actual light of the lighthouse all to himself, while forcing the brunt of the work of cleaning and maintenance on his new companion.  Robert Pattinson is Winslow, the new man on the job, having left work in Canada under dubious circumstances. The two live on the island completely isolated from the outside world and begin to struggle to keep their sanities in check. The intensity of the landscape, the bleak nature of the work, and the clash of personalities slowly builds in the movie until it becomes untenable for the two wickies and in turn the audience.

The earliest lighthouses were used as markers for ports, a signal to mariners indicating where to find safe harbor. Later, they were also used as a warning for ships to avoid reefs or dangerous rocks. The Lighthouse doesn’t function as a beacon of protection. It is a siren song luring the audience into its dangerous waters, completely engulfing the viewer in its claustrophobic, violent madness.

Scott Ray: One of things I most enjoyed about the film was the look of it. I knew from the trailer that it was shot in black and white and in 35 mm, but I had no idea that it was shot in the aspect ratio of 1.19—resulting in an almost square image on the big screen. It was sort of stunning when the trailers ended and the edges of the screen were vacated, rushing us into the windy, salt sprayed locale of the film. The film is often so dark that the edge of the picture bled away into the void anyway, causing me to often forget the aspect ratio until there was an exterior shot. Then the grim, grey landscape was all the more shocking when it appeared, revealing again the unusual look of the film. This is a film that was made to be seen on the big screen—the black and white and aspect ratio won’t be as remarkable at home. Charlie, how did you feel about the unorthodox aspect ratio? Or about the look of the film in general?

Charlie Riccardelli: The Lighthouse is gorgeously photographed, and director Robert Eggers pays special attention to how the film is framed. His other directorial effort, The Witch, also used the far less common 1.66 aspect ratio that made the woods in that film so constricting, but at least you could theoretically escape. Here the even smaller frame here reminds you at all times that the island offers no escape. That, coupled with the lushness of the images and their deep blacks and grays made The Lighthouse play like a lost artifact from early film expressionism you might see alongside Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr or The Passion of Joan of Arc. Eggers is big on transporting us to another time and place, and he’s not settling for basic set decoration and costumes to do so. He’s setting the tenor through the look, the more classical effects, and the archaic language that’s more like the bluster of Eugene O’Neill. He used language the same way with the early-American settlers in The W