There’s a debate that a “movie” is entertainment and a “film” is art. Entertainment is considered disposable and the art is worthy of time and attention. This is a compelling idea, but it’s missing the whole picture. It’s unfair to suggest that films made to entertain aren’t art and it’s closed minded to suggest that films made as art are all that’s worth viewing. Valuable films come in different forms, which is why a serious drama like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and a fun thrill-ride like Jaws (1975) are both equally worthy masterpieces despite one being “art” and the other “entertainment”. This proves that art can be entertaining and entertainment can be artful. Robert Eggers’ psychological-horror, The Lighthouse (2019) attempts to hit the bullseye between the two extremes.
Set in the late 19th-century, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) is contracted to work as a Lighthouse keeper on an isolated island in New England. His superior is Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), an old, irritable, alcoholic and flatulent man who keeps Winslow committed to a strict list of chores. Wake allows Winslow full autonomy, under the condition that he never enters the Lighthouse itself. Thus, Winslow spends his days cleaning, fixing, maintaining and taking care of a Lighthouse which he’s never allowed to appreciate. All the while, a horrendous storm has trapped Winslow and Wake on the island, cutting them off from any relief. Trapped with only eachother, they begin to lose their minds which puts them both in serious physical and mental danger.
The first (and most obvious) point to be addressed is the absolutely stunning cinematography by Jarin Blaschke. Instead of choosing a modern style, Blaschke shoots in black and white with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, just like films released from 1926 to 1932. It’s a bold choice which pays off in spades, as every image is stunningly crafted. The lights and shadows are perfectly balanced, allowing us to see every evocative detail no matter how dark it gets. This isn’t the first time a film has replicated a classical look, but this time it’s not just a fun technical gimmick. The Artist (2011) had to fix its story to fit the visual style, whereas the visual style in The Lighthouse (2019) doesn’t have to change its story one bit. These events could’ve worked just the same with a modern style, but presenting it this way ensures every shocking moment hits their absolute hardest.
Films from the 1920s and 1930s don’t usually depict horrific violence. To be sure, there was plenty of heavy narrative content back then, but it was more implied than explicit. The Lighthouse doesn’t have the same censorship rules that older films did, meaning we get a classical visual style with modern levels of severity. It’s a bizarre sensation which makes for fascinating viewing. The brutality of every moment is given the sharpest possible edge, but the presentation and tonal insanity heightens every moment to darkly comical levels. As the set-pieces unfold and become more depraved, the audience will squirm and laugh in equal measure. The extremes it reaches can be gratuitous, but it’s relatively appropriate given how dark the narrative gets.
It’s always fun to see how a filmmaker handles a streamlined story. With only two principle characters and one central location, Director Robert Eggers and screenwriter Max Eggers keep the plot simple. The runtime is filled with layered character development, plunging us deep into their broken minds. After every soliloquy, we understand a little more of what’s driving these men forward and what’s driving them further into madness. It’s not all doom and gloom as the characters enjoyably bounce off each other. Their dynamic provides much of the darkly comedic moments. Despite it’s small scale, the narrative layers make things feel huge. By allowing the thematic depth to expand with every scene, Eggers captivates the viewer for nearly the entire journey (even when things get weird).
The film does get exceedingly strange, making It quite clear there’s a lot on Eggers’ mind. Ideas surrounding mythology, existentialism and social morality are intensely covered throughout the narrative, ensuring the audience is constantly stimulated. However, that stimulation is split between having your mind blown by the complexity and wracking your brain to figure out what it all means. Building multiple layers is admirable, but at times the viewer is assumed to have specific mythological knowledge. Eggers keeps things pretty inaccessible, as the film doesn’t explain the meaning behind what’s on screen. To be clear, Eggers knows what he’s doing and there’s certainly many interpretations available, but figuring out a specific interpretation depends on what the viewer knows or doesn’t know.
Thankfully, the two lead performances do a fine job carrying the bizarre ideas and make it all palatable. Pattinson has been on a mission to gain the respect of film goers, which he more than achieves here. His depiction of Winslow displays a perfect balance between contemplative stoicism and corruptive madness. We are compelled to see what he does next, even though we are somewhat scared of him. He is perfectly matched by Willem Dafoe as Wake, who continues to be one of the most under-appreciated actors of his generation. Year after year, Dafoe graces the screen with energy, charisma and enjoyably unique performances which go relatively unnoticed, yet somehow he never stops giving his all. His performance as Wake ranks as one of the best of his career.
It’s always curious how a film like The Lighthouse will play to audiences. It’s artful construction and provocative material ensure that the film festival crowd loves it, but it may struggle to get recognition from all other audiences. It doesn’t exactly find the middle ground between art and entertainment, but it comes close. Regardless, Eggers has made sure the bizarre content and complexly unclear ideas are packaged in a fresh way, which will surely entertain and amaze many viewers.