Robert Eggers, in his latest film, despite obvious narrative differences, does not go far away from the mood present in his previous work, the brilliant Witch: A New-England Folktale (2015). The Lighthouse has also been set on a kind of border – at the point of contact between civilization and the wild world, the world of gods and beasts. This point is a place of seclusion, exile (as in The Witch, where the family leaves the Puritan settlement due to their almost fanatical religious commitment) and the interpenetration of worlds. As the ancient Greeks taught us, exile from polis is worse than death, because it is the civilizational community that makes man human.
Eggers’ heroes go to border places where none of the worlds has full influence, but constantly fights and clashes with the other side. These are places where myths, oral traditions, beliefs and stories live. One of the best-rated directors of the A24 stable creates this horror pulp with great awareness – it’s not only a mix of contexts, but also a cultural bomb that should satisfy even the most demanding viewers.
One can guess that the eponymous lighthouse is a magical place right away from the first moments of the film, when two lighthouse keepers – one old, the other young – arrive at their secluded workplace. We will soon realize that it will not necessarily be a nice journey. The creators skillfully play on – seemingly – simple fears. On fear of loneliness, of getting stuck on a barren rock in the middle of the sea, on fear of the turbulent power of water, of lightning striking the surface of the waves. The space of the lighthouse is consciously inconsistent – once the furniture will be destroyed by the heroes, the other time the lighthouse will suffer a flood, and then everything will look like at the starting point again.
The feeling of anxiety is enhanced by the use of the archaic image format (in 1.19.1 proportions), known from the first sound films (e.g. Fritz Lang’s M) from the turn of the 1920s and 1930s. The format resembling a square significantly shrinks the space of a wide cinema screen, but at the same time the black and white image sometimes seems to be absorbed by the empty left and right sides of the screen – as if the characters were in the vestibule of the abyss, Hades, hell. As if the lighthouse was a narrow corridor, a passage – a border place.
Eggers follows the path to which the A24 stable has accustomed us to. He is creating a psychological horror, the so-called slow horror. It makes you think about the chronology of events, the characters’ identity, it hypnotizes and entertains the viewers with a mythological pulp – here referring to the Promethean myth and the reviving heavenly breath, forbidden fire (light of the lantern), there giving a moment of breath and space for the sea stories, and somewhere else balancing dangerously on the border of kitsch (phalluses and vaginas).
The script was based on fragments of dialogues borrowed from the works of Herman Melville, oral sea stories and fragments of real lighthouse keepers’ diaries from the 19th century. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson live up to the director’s task. Dafoe really looks like an old sailor, who sometimes resembles a forgotten sea deity, and Pattinson perfectly copes with the madness growing in the young lighthouse keeper. There is chemistry between the actors, which works great both in tension scenes of conflict, as well as in alcoholic libations and unexpected emotional excitement.
In The Lighthouse, as it happens in the oral stories, we will find references to various things – we will find Lynchian scenes, reminiscent of the black oil-smeared lumberjacks from Twin Peaks, hysterical neurotic tempo and scenes with tentacles and monsters that will look like a combination of Borowczyk and Żuławski, one can also think that both lighthouse keepers once or twice visited the port of Brest known from Fassbinder’s Querelle.
Lighthouse is a satisfying screening and it is impossible to fit all insights into just a few paragraphs. The A24 stable once again proves that artistic horrors are undergoing a renaissance in contemporary cinema and that genre cinema is still far from being exhausted.