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“The Lighthouse": A masterpiece of madness and gothic romanticism

By Christian Todd

News and Opinion Editor

When going to the movies, I tend to expect what I am getting into. If it is a blockbuster, I go in expecting action and thrills and tend to be satisfied in that regard. When it comes to a comedy, I expect to laugh. After seeing numerous trailers for "The Lighthouse," a new film directed by Robert Eggers, who also gave us "The Witch," I was not sure how the experience would turn out.

The film is about two men stationed on an island to manage a lighthouse for several weeks and, over time, the two of them slowly begin to descend into madness. A simple plot, but the movie reveals other elements that make for an engaging and unforgettable experience.

"The Lighthouse" is unique because it is shot in black and white, which gives the film a feeling similar to classic cinema of the 1940s and 1950s. This seems to be Eggers’ intention as I cannot imagine the film working as well if it was shot in color. The black-and-white element is not just there to be stylistically pleasing, though. It adds mystery and a foreboding tone that makes for an engaging experience.

A positive element to the feature is the cinematography, which makes the lighthouse an imposing structure rather than just a typical building. Eggers mentions filmmaker Ingmar Bergman as an inspiration for how the film is shot and structured. The camera, at the beginning of one shot, starts off at the bottom of the lighthouse and, for about a minute, pans up to the top. With this slow movement, the lighthouse, with its worn down state, is the perfect reminder of the theme of madness. The lighthouse can be seen, in a way, as a third character that is being consumed by the frantic insanity expressed by both actors Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.

The best aspect of the film, and the one that I believe audiences will be most interested in, are the two characters portrayed by Dafoe and Pattinson. Dafoe plays an experienced lighthouse keeper who, through his speech and physical presence, is able to convey a man who has been through hardships and would not be able to fit in smoothly with the society of the 1890s.

Pattinson plays a younger man going from job to job, trying to find work that will provide basic support while also being satisfying. The story unveils mainly from his perspective. Having this, the viewers begin to delve into the psyche of the character and it makes the experience a deeply effective one.

The entire movie is shot near or on the island. The opening scenes have the men dropped off on the island and the rest of the movie only shows the lighthouse, the island and the sea.

The audience never gets to see what the lives of the two men are like before arriving at the island. This lack of clarity is important as not exploring those backstories enhances the events of the film.

The interactions between the two actors boost the film. We watch as they slowly descend into madness and their interactions change. Some of the interactions are a combination of dark comedy and legitimate intensity. While they are talking, it is not clear when the tone will abruptly change.

With the film being shot entirely in black and white, it provides images that are both beautiful and terrifying at the same time. The visuals allow the viewer to interpret the events and deeper meanings of the film. From visions of sexual lust to frantic scenes of nature, the images provoke and disturb.

One element that I was not expecting was the use of comedy within the film. While the film is beyond genre categorization, comedy is used rather prominently. It gives the film another angle to reflect upon the insanity.

Allusions to classical literature are prevalent within the film. “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge has an element that is used prominently. Pattinson compares Dafoe to Ahab in “Moby Dick.” The film also appears to take influence from the works of Edgar Allan Poe. With these allusions, the film’s themes become rich and give the production a unique depth.

The film, while I have given it praise, is a niche production, and some audiences will not enjoy it. Instead of grand fight scenes, which a viewer would find in a Marvel or Stars Wars movie, the film is a psychological horror that contemplates the state of the mind in isolation.

The cinematography, the black and white perspective and the focus on atmosphere and themes over plot will not be to the taste of everyone. I recommend it to those who have a love of cinema. To those who want to just enjoy a movie, then “The Lighthouse” would be rather disorienting.

“The Lighthouse” is playing in theatres nationwide. The film is rated R and distributed by A24.

Photos courtesy of A24, Regency Enterprises, Parts & Labor and RT Features.

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