Deep Focus: The Lighthouse
Updated: Jan 6
Having made a splash on the festival circuit last year, with high billing at both the Cannes and London film festivals, Robert Eggers’s second feature film, The Lighthouse, has been lauded in its proficiency and creativity by reviewers several times over. They praise the visual sublimity, genre-defying tone, “astounding” performances, and the deftness with which Eggers’s direction pairs grittiness and simplicity with artistic – perhaps auteurist – ambition.[i] With this style of review well and truly covered, my assessment of The Lighthouse will take a different tack. Eggers is clearly a cinephile, and his film reflects influences from some of the great directors in film history, smartly woven into the composition of The Lighthouse. What is particularly clever is that he draws our attention to this fact through very obvious formal elements – the monochrome and square 1.19:1 aspect ratio not only help to build the mood of the diegesis as being set in a time period a century before our own, but they also compel the viewer to recall other similarly constructed films, providing a formal bridge into film history. Therefore, this review will be framed through exploring what The Lighthouse extracts from some of history’s most acclaimed filmmakers – namely Alfred Hitchcock, Martin Scorsese and Robert Bresson.
The allusions to Hitchcock are perhaps the most blatant, the first of which is at the very heart of how The Lighthouse attempts to enrapture and entertain its viewers. The premise of the film is that two men – Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), though they remain nameless for a good chunk of the movie, and indeed, the revelation of their names becomes a rather important plot point – arrive on an otherwise uninhabited island to maintain its lighthouse, and are slowly driven mad as the island, and the film itself, becomes gradually more unsettling. With this slow-burn style of horror, Eggers eschews the fashionable but overused jump-scare in favour of suspense, and it is here, as you might expect, that he leans on Hitchcock. The original master of suspense really did know how to manipulate his craft to play with his audience, from the codification of everyday sights into objects of terror, to turning the tables on his viewers by making them aware of their own voyeurism and the suggestion that, just maybe, the screen was watching them just as they were watching it. Eggers employs both of these in The Lighthouse, the most ingenious being his borrowing of perhaps the most well-known of all of Hitchcock’s codified symbols: spooky, foreboding birds. The presence of these in both Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), Hitchcock’s two greatest horror masterpieces, has led to much discussion in film circles as to what they represent. Are the birds nature’s way of fighting back against the evils of man? Perhaps they are women, voiceless and objectified under the male gaze until they group together and fight back? Perhaps they defy all explanation and are merely a platform upon which to project our own insecurities and superstitions?[ii] All of these connotations from the work of Hitchcock are carried into Eggers’s film by the birds, who thus become, from their very first moment on screen, one of the most loaded and memorable images from The Lighthouse.
Furthermore, Eggers builds on the concept of voyeurism that Hitchcock so enjoyed playing with. The eponymous lighthouse itself, of course, is a searchlight that often rakes across the screen, as though searching for the viewer, and this, coupled with the incessant, disrupting alarm call that permeates the film, help construct the unsettling nature, suggesting that perhaps the audience is at just as much risk of going mad as the characters. On top of this, there are shots where the lens is blocked to form an iris gaze, and shots of a magnified eye, all of which draw our attention, just as Hitchcock did in his prime, to our own complicity in the voyeuristic pleasure we take from the horrors of The Lighthouse, and by extension, a certain complicity in the fate of the characters, an accusation perhaps just as terrifying as the madness itself.
Too often narratives involving a descent into madness are said to resemble Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). In the case of The Lighthouse, the more appropriate Scorsese reference is Shutter Island (2010) another film in which a man is ultimately forced to question his own sanity inside a lighthouse.[iii] Though two very different films aesthetically and tonally, it is fascinating how Eggers draws on the characterisation that Scorsese employs to bolster our understanding of Winslow and Wake, from their isolation from women which, similarly to Scorsese’s doomed men, drives a descent into carnality and unattainable fantasy, to their self-identification; the act of looking into a mirror and making sense of what they see in their own reflection, a reflection they may not fully recognise as themselves. Eggers also shares Scorsese’s penchant for allegory, the final moments of The Lighthouse revealing the film to contain elements of the legend of Proteus and Prometheus, the final shot showing Winslow left on a lonely rock to suffer for his sins as the aforementioned birds pluck out his guts, presumably for all eternity. Again, then, Eggers adapts Scorsese’s techniques and deploys them in his own way, showing remarkable confidence for a man making only his second feature film, and making The Lighthouse better for it.
The references Eggers makes to Bresson are perhaps more subtle, The Lighthouse borrowing from the unique French filmmaker only slightly, and yet using these moments to blend the mood of the film into its finished state. Bresson was a director obsessed with the intricacies of real-life actions, slowing the pace of his films so that we could watch somebody, and particularly their hands in close-up, performing a certain task, be that stealing wallets in Pickpocket (1959), or working to unscrew and dig their way out of prison in A Man Escaped (1956). By inserting similar shots of Winslow and Wake as they go about their menial duties on the lonely island, and watching closely as their hands perform manual tasks, Eggers is able to construct the same atmosphere as Bresson – one of captivating monotony, where finding madness in an act is just as easy a bedfellow as its romanticisation. Much as in Bresson, this technique is intended as a slow burn to a final payoff, although, much as in Bresson, I’m not entirely convinced that the final moments are worth the wait, that they capitalise on the tension the film has worked so hard to build up sufficiently.
The Lighthouse makes a conscious departure from Bresson though in terms of the performance styles, a difference so stark it is almost as though Eggers was experimenting to discover the effects of melodramatic acting within a Bressonian tonal framework. Whereas Bresson chose non-actors to be more models than performers, to remain fairly expressionless and follow the director’s instructions to the letter, Eggers chooses the opposite path at every turn. Pattinson and Dafoe are very familiar faces, if not household names, and the way they are styled here, all facial hair and wistful eyes, is as though to emphasise their features rather than make them plain, as Bresson might choose to do. Though they remain measured and stoic in the film’s first hour, the second half is a complete departure from this, the madness of the characters demonstrated by Eggers seemingly asking the actors to perform every possible emotion to the maximum extent of their ability. This leads to the film somewhat ending up feeling more like an acting masterclass rather than a controlled narrative as madness erupts, and although Pattinson and Dafoe are impressive in their own ways, it is perhaps this lack of control in the film’s second half that led to their snubs at the Oscars earlier this year.
Nevertheless, though the film has its flaws, it truly is excellent in terms of aesthetic, tone and characterisation, and the way Eggers draws from film history to enhance his own film is, without doubt, ingenious and masterfully executed. And if that, along with the prospect of finding even more cleverly integrated cinematic references, doesn’t make you want to see The Lighthouse, I don’t know what will.
At time of writing, The Lighthouse is available to watch on Now TV/Sky Cinema.
[i] See any of The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/may/19/the-lighthouse-review-robert-pattinson-shines-in-sublime-maritime-nightmare, The Independent https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/reviews/lighthouse-review-robert-pattinson-willem-dafoe-trailer-a9143576.html, The Telegraph https://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/0/lighthouse-review-film-will-make-head-soul-ring/, or Empire https://www.empireonline.com/movies/reviews/the-lighthouse/ for a variation of this glistening review, one thing at least that all these politically opposed publications can agree on. [ii] Perhaps the most concise and yet detailed scholarly summary of these interpretations can be found in Christopher D. Morris’s “Reading the Birds and The Birds” in Literature/Film Quarterly Issue 28, Volume 4. [iii] This essay draws on Edgar Allen Poe, another who inspired Eggers, to provide an excellent analysis of the significance of the lighthouses in the two films: https://brightlightsfilm.com/to-the-lighthouse-cinematic-lighthouses-in-shutter-island-annihilation-and-the-lighthouse/#.X6V0mlAW5PY