GRAPHIC ILLUSTRATION BY STEPH LAWLOR
“Never kill a seabird,” is what lighthouse keeper Thomas Wake shouts at Ephraim Winslow, played by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, in Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse.” A film that perfectly encapsulates the “Hollywood versus independent” agenda by making itself look as non-marketable as possible. A film that completely refuses to hold back, even for the viewers that usually ask for something “lighter.” Then again, what did you expect from the guy who arguably took the Sundance horror scene by storm only three years ago with “The Witch?”
After a previous “incident,” Winslow finds himself a job in the form of working as a “wickie” (or lighthouse keeper) for Wake on a New England island during the late 1800s, deciding to leave his life as a timberman behind in order to start anew. From there, we follow these two over several weeks, as Winslow constantly finds himself under the strict and almost dictatorial command of Wake and, more importantly, in the presence of pestering seagulls that refuse to leave him alone.
But as time continues to pass, their seclusion begins to affect Winslow, as he tries to keep up with every daily task or assignment while trying to keep his own sanity intact. There’s a reason why Wake requested a new wickie to accompany him at the lighthouse. There’s a reason why Winslow decided to accept this job in the first place. And there’s a reason why Wake refuses to allow Winslow to visit the prism of the lighthouse itself.
But then again, a wickie should “never kill a seabird,” no matter what may provoke them to do so.
With the decision to utilize black-and-white cinematography and to keep the aspect ratio at 1.33:1, the presentation makes itself clear: this is a loving send-up to horror films of Hollywood’s Golden Age — only instead of the focus being on one of the many iconic “Movie Monsters” (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, etc.), Eggers aims to bring the psychological factor of horror filmmaking to this format.
Yet, he and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke still manage to shoot the film through high-quality extreme close-ups and symmetrical composition, often for the purpose of successfully merging past and present simultaneously, resulting in some of the most breathtaking shots that independent filmmaking has to offer.
Dafoe and especially Pattinson are absolutely riveting in their roles. The former ultimately embodies an authority figure who believes more in the ability of other workers while he just continues to sleep. The latter, however, chooses to stand internally opposed to the tyrannical power the more he is forced to endure a vicious cycle of daily, and sometimes dangerous, labor — painting the lighthouse itself usually comes to mind.
In other words, Wake is “the boss” while Winslow is “the employee.” While one might argue that these two characters only serve as stereotypes within an otherwise non-stereotypical story (especially Dafoe’s characterization of Wake as cruel, immature and unhygienic), they help to emphasize not necessarily the audience’s attachment to them, but their alienation from the rest of society.
There’s no doubt that Eggers and his co-writer and brother, Max Eggers, are striving to betray mainstream horror cliches. This is an incredibly discomforting, slow-burn, psychological descent into hallucinatory madness, following a protagonist who is forced to eventually realize the consequences of what he has created for himself.
Eggers’ film is anything but a jump-scare fest, which as a result, might turn off viewers who are looking for something a little more transparent. Therein lies the problem — not with the film itself, but rather with the audience’s perception of its purposefully ambiguous presentation.
However, the more viewers begin to appreciate these “outside films,” the more they can realize that horror filmmaking is not about repeating what has already been successful. It is about doing something strikingly different, something that constantly builds in each viewer until eventually they are left completely appalled and, more importantly, with their own theories of the events that have unfolded.