You can’t fault Robert Eggers’ ambition. Five years ago his first feature, The Witch, demonstrated a distinctive vision and formidable craft in a genre so often defined by lazily-tossed-together homages. While I was lukewarm on the film on the whole, resisting its reliance on reproducing an earlier era’s misogyny, Eggers’ talent was equally undeniable; as I noted at the time, his “formal craft and visual nuance are laudable.”
Where others might have parlayed the critical success of The Witch as entrée to the mainstream – say, by helming a Conjuring spinoff and leveraging that into a bigger franchise – Eggers stuck stubbornly to his old-fashioned guns (muskets might be the better word), turning his attention to this odd little creation: The Lighthouse. Though more modern than The Witch in its setting, taking place in the late nineteenth century, The Lighthouse’s aesthetic is even more archaic than its predecessor’s desaturated, naturally-lit murkiness.
Shot in black-and-white in an almost square aspect ratio (1.19:1, technically), the film immediately recalls an earlier era of cinema. Jarin Blaschke’s sumptuous yet stark cinematography was nominated for an Academy Award, and deservingly-so. The images are painterly and expressive, but most importantly they evoke the desolation of the film’s isolated setting, a lighthouse surrounded by little more than sharp-edged rocks and a swarm of shrieking seagulls. Blaschke’s camera inexorably glides through the impressively-crafted sets, venturing through walls and up the tower’s perilously spiralled staircase. The tableaux are expansively realised and yet claustrophobia can’t help but creep in.
But Eggers’ ambition goes beyond such aesthetic achievements. As in The Witch, he clearly wants to tell a different kind of story here. That story falls along three major axes. The first is the relationship between the elder ‘wicky’ (Willem Dafoe) and his incumbent protégé (Robert Pattinson). Dafoe’s character is curmudgeonly and frequently flatulent; Pattinson is defined by flinty frustration – both at the demands of his superior (who hogs the all-important duty of tending the light) and at some deeper wound we won’t come to understand until later in the tale.
The other axes are more unorthodox. On one hand we explore Pattinson’s degrading mental state, realised in visions of mermaids and distant tempests. Perhaps this is a symptom of cabin fever; perhaps he’s merely being gaslit by his cranky supervisor. Or – as the third axis proposes – this is actually a supernatural tale. Those mermaids are at once real and a figurative manifestation of Pattinson’s character’s feelings of guilt, explored in more detail in the film’s final third.
Each of these story elements is individually enticing. What keeps The Lighthouse from achieving its potential, for me, is how Eggers (and co-screenwriter Max Eggers) find themselves drawn down each axis rather than investigating their intersections. The interactions between the two men – anchored by their committed acting performances and, eventually, a whole lot of alcohol – quiver with an odd, queer-adjacent intensity: ripples of tales like Beau Travail or Billy Budd where power structures are underpinned by unnamed desire. As fascinating as it is, it’s never fully explored nor aligned with these images of mermaids or spiritual incarnations of shame. If you’re going to say, interpret the lighthouse’s circling beacon as a kind of deity – a perfectly valid interpretation! – it’s hard to reconcile that with the curious relationship that forms between the two men.
Such ambiguity is a failing less because of divergent narrative and thematic threads, but more because of the way that they undermine Eggers’ attempt to develop and sustain a compelling atmosphere. The first time Pattinson sees visions of mermaids, for instance, adrift at sea surrounded by bobbing coffins, I was transfixed. It was a perfect example of the way the right editing rhythms and aesthetic approach can enable the supernatural to be neatly folded into a previously-realistic narrative. But the shifting between these themes left me feeling adrift, buffeted by savage waves of powerfully-executed stories that seemed to all be pushing me in different directions without a singular focus.
The Lighthouse isn’t as dry as I’m making it out to be. While I wouldn’t describe it as a laugh riot – as many critics at Cannes did, presumably starved of anything approaching a laugh a week into the famous film festival – there’s no denying that Eggers is better at leavening his tone here than he was in his oppressive previous film. Even if The Lighthouse might fall short of what I feel like it could have been, it’s a demonstration of the raw talent and original ideas bubbling in its director’s head. I’d set sail with him again.