December 10, 2019


The Lighthouse: New England Dread Meets Greek Myth (MARK JUDGE, 12/09/19, Law & Liberty)

The film could be a tale of a man slowly going crazy, or it could be an old New England nautical folk tale about the inscrutability and danger of the sea, or it could be a clever story that brings together a god and a man from ancient Greek mythology. Not being completely clear on the answer is part of the intrigue of the film, which is the work of a young director who over two movies has tapped into what one critic calls "New England dread." A New Hampshire native, Eggers is fascinated with the history of New England, particularly the supernatural history. His first feature The Witch, set in 1630, features period language and was called "perhaps the most painstakingly realized film ever made about colonial Massachusetts, with all the austerity, religious hysteria, and demon goats that implies." "New England is where the European white Protestant culture has been around for the longest," Eggers recently said. "I grew up in a clapboard house in the middle of the woods, and my grandpa lived in a house from the 1740s. You're around creepy stone walls, it's just-it's everywhere. I mean, Paul Revere's house looks pretty creepy."

This cold, haunting Northeastern aesthetic saturates the film. Two men, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), have a four-week assignment at a lighthouse on a small island off the coast of New England. Thomas is a briny tyrant right out of Moby Dick who occupies Ephraim's days with endless chores, all the while preventing the younger man from access to a close-up view of the heavenly glow at the top of the lighthouse. The previous assistant, Thomas explains, went mad because he "saw some enchantment in the light." This film earns the appellation of horror because of its portrayal of a slow descent into madness. The fading ship at the opening was just the beginning, as Ephraim soon begins to second-guess his sanity because he is seeing things, including a mermaid who emits a siren wail that Ephraim finds both irresistible and terrifying.

This is only Eggers' second feature, but the director shows masterful control here. Every creak in the lighthouse itself sounds authentic, and the sweeping rain sounds are so punishing they threaten to spill into the theater. The actors are shot in tight, claustrophobic places. Sound designer Damian Volpe deserves an Oscar for his work, especially for the jarring foghorn noise that shakes Ephraim throughout the film. Actors Dafoe and Pattinson are both excellent.

A key to discovering what is going on in The Lighthouse comes from researching the screenwriters, Eggers and his brother Max. They based the dialogue in the film on passages out of Herman Melville, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Louis Stevenson, and writings by the New England novelist and poet Sarah Orne Jewett. Thomas seems to relish this farrago of New England writers and primary sourced journals from workers at the time. Barking his words behind a wet and bushy beard (for example: "Damn ye! Then let two strike ye dead, Winslow! Hark!"), Dafoe's character is a force of nature here, and his performance could be considered over-the-top until the viewer realizes that he may indeed be playing a god. (Spoilers ahead, so stop reading if you want to see the film fresh).

Posted by at December 10, 2019 12:00 AM