Robert Eggers’ horror film The Lighthouse: style over substance?

Does this black and white film add up to anything more than a sustained stylistic experiment?

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There are elevator pitches and then there is the new black and white horror film from Robert Eggers, which can be summed up in just seven words: two men go nuts in a lighthouse. Stuck together in Nova Scotia in the late 19th century are Thomas (Willem Dafoe), a “wicky” (lighthouse keeper) with a beard thicker than his jumper and a Popeye pipe in the corner of his gob, and his assistant Ephraim (Robert Pattinson), who has doleful eyes and a grave scowl. Both have deep-grooved faces like wood carvings.

All goes well at first, give or take the howling wind, the grey sheets of rain, the intimidating seagulls and the disembodied moaning that sounds like a whale in labour. To the various whines, whistles, honks and rumbles on the soundtrack can be added the noise of Thomas farting. (That must have been a fun day at the office for the foley artists.) The main issue for Ephraim, though, is that he’s not allowed anywhere near the upper reaches of the lighthouse. Hanging suspended on ropes, he wipes and polishes the exterior brickwork while the older man peers down the shaft at him and barks orders from above in a scene that even the Carry On team might have considered a bit on the nose. Should Ephraim even think about venturing upstairs, he is put firmly in his place. “See to your duties,” Thomas warns. “The light is mine.”

There is talk of an earlier wicky who went mad, bewitched by the dazzle and given to babbling about sirens. Sexual frustration is a problem; what with all the masturbation, mermaid fantasies and colourful language (Ephraim accuses Thomas of reeking like a “curdled foreskin”), the mood in the lighthouse suggests Davy Jones’s locker room.

The real enemy is inactivity: “Doldrums, doldrums, eviler than the devil,” sighs Thomas. The more time the men spend in each other’s company, the murkier their relationship becomes, until the mix of boredom and sexual confusion starts to recall Polanski’s Cul-de-Sac, another sly chamber-piece shot in black and white in a remote location (in that case, Lindisfarne). Living together in a giant phallic symbol begins to take its toll. Whenever the men soften around one another, even drunkenly slow dancing in one scene, they invariably break out into fisticuffs afterwards like a million repressed movie hard-men before them. Thomas accuses Ephraim of stinting on the cleaning and orders him to polish every nail in the place until it sparkles “like a sperm whale’s pecker”, telling him, “you’ll like it ‘cos I says you will”. The suspicion that this isn’t about the housework at all is only compounded when Ephraim later starts leading Thomas around on a lead on all fours. One man’s psychodrama is another man’s night out in Vauxhall.

Anyone who saw The Witch, Eggers’ chilling 2015 debut about an exiled family in 17th-century New England, will know that what he lacks in narrative slaloming he makes up for in mood and authenticity. The new picture draws much of its script from 19th-century dialect studies and real lighthouse-keepers’ journals; even the three-part stitching on the characters’ underwear is loyal to the needlework of the day. Well, of course it is. If the cast and crew didn’t have to catch their own lunch in lobster cages it will come as a disappointment.

The Lighthouse was shot on 35mm film in the 1.19:1 aspect ratio popular in early sound cinema, which produces a square image rather than a rectangular one, and ensures that the actors look trapped even when standing beneath wide and empty skies. The Oscar-nominated cinematographer Jarin Blaschke has used vintage lenses, including one dating back to 1912, as well as filters and lighting redolent of 19th-century photography. Candlelight lends the actors unstable shadows that loom above them, and when the camera admires the tight coil of the lighthouse stairwell we could be inside one of Man Ray’s hypnotic “rayograph” spirals.

Like Mark Jenkin’s recent Bait, the whole film feels like an artefact dredged up from the ocean floor. While The Witch was characterised by austerity, from its visual style through to its acting, The Lighthouse is an altogether more lavish endeavour, whatever its tighter focus, smaller cast and artfully distressed texture might suggest. When it comes to thunder and lightning, Dafoe and Pattinson give the elements a run for their money, and their theatricality is part of the point. Ephraim accuses Thomas of being a “parody” and both men are given barnstorming monologues that sound like ready-made drama school audition pieces. The overblown scale of the performances is at the root of even the film’s loveliest and most delicate image: Ephraim stomping around a flooded cottage, oblivious to the dainty ship in a bottle bobbing on the water’s surface.

Whether this adds up to anything more than a sustained stylistic experiment is another matter. It is perfectly possible to admire the film and to still feel that it amounts to little more than a storm in a teacup. A painstakingly sourced authentic period teacup with original 19th-century patterning, of course, but a teacup all the same. 

The Lighthouse (15)
dir: Robert Eggers

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 29 January 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Over and out