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 Witch. Did that also help you sink into this world?
SR: I felt more than sunk into this world—I felt like I was dunked and held underwater. I liked the language’s idiosyncrasies, and I especially liked Dafoe’s salt-sprayed, lifer sailor. Though I liked Pattinson’s performance on the whole, he seemed to sort of weave in and out of whatever strange old New England accent he was doing. This question of sinking into the film—it’s an interesting question because there were aspects of the film that seemed to be actively pushing me away. The droning cacophonous sounds the various features of the island produced—the machinery of the lighthouse mechanisms, the sound of the sea—a lot of times kept me from understanding the dialogue. I think obscuring the clarity of the dialogue was intentional, I think Eggers was trying to connect the viewer to the overwhelming sensations the characters were living through, but at times it took me out of the film. I like to hear what characters are saying.
CR: I didn’t mind that obscured dialogue as much. For me, they only added to that otherworldly Lynchian vibe. You can see some of the more strikingly pure nods to David Lynch’s work here that I’ve seen, from more fantastical elements involving mermaids to the trippy, grotesque dreams that emerge from the forbidden lighthouse. Lynch also pays special care to the sound, using the discordant audio and distortion can send the viewer deeper into the nightmarish isolation and paranoia as Winslow and Wake are forced to stay on the island due to a storm that prevents a ship from reaching them.
Just as important as Eggers’ filmmaking are the assured work of Pattinson and Dafoe. Once the storm hits, they experience a total upheaval in their ways of functioning together. Winslow has barely kept himself stable throughout the month despite some gnarly bouts of paranoia and becoming the target of a vicious one-eyed gull. Meanwhile Wake’s premature night of drinking to celebrate a successful job well done soon leads to bingeing on every hidden bottle of booze on the island, plus any fuel they can distill to drink. Winslow and Wake have seemingly quarantined themselves on the island to put a divide between them and the functional members of society, but their diminished inhibitions and fear create a destructive storm more powerful than anything happening outside their quarters.
SR: You know, I think you’re really right about this last point. The performances are essential to this film. Wake could have fallen into a caricature of a New England crusty old salt, yet Dafoe captures the character so completely—that gnarled face coated in unkempt whiskers, the gravel in the voice, the rum caul of the eyes—that he moves into a realm that felt authentic and original. Despite some lapses in accent, Pattinson brought a focused intensity to the role of Winslow as well. In many ways it is his transition that parallels the experience of the viewer—he begins the film as a seemingly sedate counter to the eccentric, rum soaked Wake, only making his descent into drunken paranoia and madness more dramatic. Pattinson is becoming one of my favorite actors to watch. His performance in High Life is one of my favorites of the year, and his recent turn in Good Time had a similar sort of electricity found in this film.
And yet. And yet. The next thing I’m going to say might seem a little hyperbolic or provocative but the more I think about it the more I’m inclined to settle on this conclusion—what did the film itself do better than the trailer? The teaser trailer was fantastic. It showed the alienness of the environment, the distinction of the cinematography, the figures of both the characters, and the fraught way the characters interacted. It showed a slow descent into unrest. I saw it and immediately started counting down the days to the film’s premiere. All of those pieces remained in the film itself, but were they expanded upon? Did it make me feel more than the trailer? I recognize the care and skill that went into every aspect of making this film. I want to like it, but I’m not sure in the end I did. In the end I think it leaves me cold.
CR: Left cold by what exactly? The trailer is a vivid encapsulation of what the film is, but I’m trying to wrap my head around the idea that the trailer gave the viewer everything worth seeing. The robust dialogue. The vivid, theatrical staging. The macabre, frightening imagery that penetrates that brings to life the characters’ deep-seated imbalances. The trailer doesn’t even get at the menace of the gull. And of course, there’s the homoeroticism.
The Lighthouse does not shy away from its queerness. Winslow appears to be running from it, both literally and figuratively. By the time Winslow and Wake descend into their hell on the island, they become like the boozing couple of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? only if the characters Martha and George from that play started carrying around an axe. I would hate to spoil where that goes because it is definitely not in the trailer.
SR: Perhaps left cold isn’t right. Maybe shipwrecked is better. Adrift! Perhaps what I mean about the trailer is that it told me everything I needed to know about the movie. This might be considered good—trailers can sometimes be quite dishonest. The Lighthouse certainly delivered as advertised. On the other hand, I didn’t find much about the film surprising. I’m not asking for a twist ending, in fact I’m almost never asking for that, but I would like my expectations subverted in some ways. Even the homoeroticism and the axe you mention—I think it was pretty apparent from the trailer that these would be in play. I would hate to lose the antagonistic seabird, so you’ve got me there. I didn’t dislike the film, but I didn’t love it like I thought I would. I also am not sure all fans of The Witch will be on board for this one. Though there are similarities in mood and in theme—in a way you can say both are studies in isolation and depictions of very specific hells—The Lighthouse is more challenging and perhaps less rewarding.
In the end, I think anyone who was intrigued by the trailer would enjoy The Lighthouse, just be warned, all ye who enter, it’s a bit of a slow burn. But again, the film is lovingly, skillfully, and beautifully made, and the performances are worth the price of admission.
Scott Ray is from Mississippi. He is a PhD student in fiction at the University of North Texas. His work has appeared in Hobart, Measure, Jellyfish Review and elsewhere. He is the Production Editor at American Literary Review.
Charlie Riccardelli graduated from the University of North Texas with his Ph.D. in Creative Writing and earned his M.F.A. at William Paterson University. A New Jersey native, he currently lives in Denton, Texas where he is a professor for the Department of Technical Communication, as well as their academic advisor. He previously served as an editor/writer for American Microreviews and Interviews and assistant fiction editor for American Literary Review. His short stories and essays have appeared in various publications, including film articles for PopMatters and Hobart.