The Lighthouse (Canada-US, 2019)

Lost in the fog

The Lighthouse seems to have been trailed for months and its monochrome look, and stars Dafoe and Pattinson, made it intriguing. Most of the critical response seems to have been glowing as well. The image above is misleading as the film is shot in a Movietone ratio of 1:1.19 (new to me); this dates back to the 1920s and was an early attempt at synchronising sound on film. The monochrome and almost square aspect ratio reminded me of Bait (which has the slightly wider 4:3) though the films use the archaic form (monochrome and aspect ratio) to signify different things: for Bait it was authenticity; The Lighthouse, the 19th century.

Another reason why Eggers may have chosen the narrow frame, which ‘forces’ composition to be vertical, is it meant close-up shots of a character’s head would fill the screen and so emphasise the likelihood that the events we are watching are the product of strained minds.

I didn’t get far into writer-director Robert Eggers’ debut, The Witch (Canada-US, 2015), as I was put off by the clangorous soundtrack telling me to be scared when there was nothing happening on the screen that was scary. The Lighthouse (co-written with his brother Max), too, is a horror film but initially presents itself as arthouse with its slow paced narrative in addition to the unusual aspect ratio and black and white cinematography (brilliantly done by Jarin Blaschke). The low-key lighting, no fill light making the shadows on faces deep, adds to the portentous atmosphere.

The narrative, two blokes stuck on a rock, is certainly not multiplex fair even with its stars. Dafoe has always took on non-mainstream roles and Pattinson is pursuing the same route. However, as the film develops it becomes more of a genre piece and, for me, it falls apart.

This isn’t because I’m anti-genre, or anti-horror, just that the two elements are not combined in a convincing fashion. The script plays around with the fact that maybe the events we see aren’t really happening but are the product of a disturbed mind (we are with Pattinson’s Ethan/Thomas for most of the film), but events become too random (the severed head in the lobster basket) to cohere. There’s nothing wrong with keeping an audience guessing about the veracity of what we see, and we know mermaids don’t exist, but the balancing act of the ‘fantastic’ (is it real or not?) is delicate and The Lighthouse falls over too often to convince.

Eggers’ background is as a set designer and Craig Lathrop’s production design is a magnificent piece of Gothic detritus. I only wished I cared for the characters more. Ethan/Thomas has a back story, hence he has two identities as he seems to have lied about who he is, which is never clearly elucidated; similarly Dafoe’s Thomas may be not who he claims to be. The doubling of names suggests doppelgängers but again this isn’t fully worked through. The obtuseness has the arthouse about it but didn’t, to me, seem to have point: obtuseness for its own sake.

The sound design (Damian Volpe) is superb: the grinding of cogs that run the lighthouse are enough to drive its inhabitants mad even without the moonshine liquor. But, but, but… should’ve had a better script.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: