"The Lighthouse" by Robert Egger


     There are thousands of films in this world, but very few leave you speechless and scratching your head. And even fewer yet do so with the intention of doing so. That brings us to the film "The Lighthouse," directed by Robert Eggers and his avant-garde piece about two men, stuck in a lighthouse, who are forced to get by with their own psyches slowly falling apart (in much the same way our own does while watching this) and in the end, the film leaves more questions than it does answers. And while most viewers may not like that, it isn't necessarily a bad thing.

     The cinematography of the film is a chaotic whirlwind of images that reflect a much younger time in cinema that seems to mimic the German impressionist films of the beginning of the last century. Everything from the choice of filming in black and white, to the (almost) perfect square aspect ratio hearkens to an older and simpler time of filmmaking when the art-form was just coming into itself. But it does more than that. The cinematography creates a box that closes the viewers eyesight and seems to trap us in the lighthouse with the two actors on screen. This is a very effective and subtle psychological camera trick. The film begins with a formal style of filmmaking showcasing everything from heavy contrasting shots and includes some beautiful symmetry showing the two leads, Ephraim (Patterson) and Thomas (Dafoe), divided by a single column in the center of the screen, with no words between them. This is just the beginning of their divide. Soon they are at odds when Tom refuses to let Ephraim see whatever is at the top of the lighthouse, leaving Ephraim not only curious but feeling emasculated as the "greenhorn" of the lighthouse. The discord only grows as is evident in the looming shadows watching over the two in their suppers, and things turn for the worst in a gruesome scene where Ephraim slays a gull by beating it against a rock (against the warnings of Thomas who claims the gulls are the souls of fallen sailors). It is here where the film takes a tonal shift and the madness descends. A storm comes in, almost surely because of Ephraim's killing of the bird, and the two find their solace in alcohol and their work with the cinematography growing darker and exceedingly confusing as we learn more about the darkness at the top of the lighthouse and the darkness within both characters. Overall, there are some powerful scenes, most notably when Thomas evokes the wrath of Triton in a drunken stupor, cursing young Ephraim for not liking his cooking. This powerful shot and monologue is delivered beautifully by Dafoe and only propels the chaos of the film further. Soon, you aren't sure whether the characters are crazy, or you are, for finding it hard to follow the plot. The film ends in a brutal fight to the death between Thomas and Ephraim, and again, you aren't sure whether to side with the crazy old man and all of his tentacles, or if the young new lighthouse keeper is actually insane or if he really did see some mystifying monster in the mist (I love my alliterations). But the real head turner is the end of the film when Ephraim has killed Thomas, and finally makes his way up those Escher-esque spiraling stairs to find a haunting light waiting for him in the flame of the lighthouse that drives him to his untimely death, or so we are led to believe. 


     Now, the story itself is meant to be an artistic take on an Edgar Allan Poe poem known by the same name as the film. This may be one of the very reasons that the film is so strangely dark, macabre, and confusing, but there are still aspects of the film's writing that are hauntingly beautiful in their delivery. For one, the speech of the two characters is something out of a (more) historically accurate Pirates of the Caribbean movie, complete with rum-drunk sailors. This adds to the feeling of a true period piece and only draws the viewers into this world more and sells the reality that they live in. You add into the mix the fact that at the very least, Ephraim sees a mermaid, and you have the beginning of a truly thrilling and confusing psychotic breakdown. We as viewers are unsure of where to turn and, just like the poem, we are left with questions and a film that makes us think and have to sit and process what we just saw. Then there is the reversals of perspective that happen on several occasions in the film where we may be siding with one character, and then with a simple line of dialogue from Thomas, we now are led to believe that Ephraim was crazy this whole time and were merely not witnesses to it. But it happens multiple times and we aren't sure if there is some very serious manipulation going on with Ephraim's mind by some deep-sea creature, or if Ephraim (who we find out is a murderer) is actually capable of full-blown psychosis as well. The story does a great job of making sure that we are unsure in every aspect of the word. 


     Then there is the sound design, or lack of it in this case. The movie starts us with the very unsettling sound of the lighthouse horn. Over and over. And it creates a suspense as it is paired with the lack of dialogue and immediately portrays a sense of loneliness that subtly eats away at our very core as the film goes on. And we hear the horn more and more throughout the film as the story intensifies. Then there are the birds. Those annoying birds. Or I suppose it's those annoying dead sailors, but ultimately what there is, is little to no music, and this does what it is meant to: it gives us an older feeling movie while tying into the suspense and psychological thrill of the entire film. 

     Ultimately the film gives us a peak at some references to Greek myths, specifically Proteus and Prometheus which are mentioned in Thomas' powerful curse-monologue thing. There is a parallel in the Protean themes of an old-man trickster (interestingly similar to Thomas' character) and the Promethean reference to a man taking what was forbidden, in this case Ephraim was forbidden from entering the top of the lighthouse, and his betrayal leads to his untimely punishment. The chaotic and confusing film is definitely one that leaves you with a strange after-tase (though not necessarily a bad one) and the imagery is hard to swallow with certain scenes being graphic and powerful in their delivery. But while this film may be hard to follow, much like Edgar Allan Poe's complex writing, this is a film that deserves a watch (or two) to truly find the answers to the questions that it leaves you with. 

If your're interested, you can rent the movie 

By Christopher Alexander

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