Only Madness Awaits – The Lighthouse

Understanding the place black-and-white film has in modern cinema is tricky. It has become increasingly uncommon since the 1970s but there is a certain power that comes with the history and reverence of the monochromatic format. Tapping into that isn’t always easy but two of last year’s best films, Roma and Cold War, were black-and-white. In 2017, Logan (possibly the most highly regarded superhero film) got a special B&W theatrical run and Blu-ray bonus. If you were to go back as recently as 2012, The Artist won five Oscars including Best Picture and it was a silent film to boot. Shooting in grayscale didn’t use to be a choice but it has become an increasingly important artistic avenue for modern filmmakers. The Lighthouse exemplifies much of that artistry and many of the filmmaking intricacies that go along with it.

Robert Eggers (right) on set with Robert Pattinson (left)

Just when I thought Midsommar was a lock to win my Weirdest Movie of the Year award, along came Writer/Director Robert Eggers (The Witch) with this uniquely visceral, cerebral, and mesmeric tale of hallucinatory paranoia. Set on an obscure New England island during the 1890s, two lighthouse keepers try to maintain their sanity while escaping their lives. Throw in some mermaid action, a furious masturbation scene, prominently repeated flatulence, the drunken ramblings of an old seaman, and you’re starting to get a grasp on just how strange this movie is.  

It’s a little tough to believe this is only Eggers’ second full-length feature film because he has such a distinct style and clear command over his projects. The screenplay he wrote with his brother Max is incredibly peculiar but it’s robust and loaded with character design. Considering the visual juxtaposition, the dialogue is ridiculously colorful and injects the film with a certain kind of frenetic energy. The plot sets the table for plenty of quiet brooding and you get that too but it’s really the character interaction that steers the ship.

We are treated to some incredible performances from Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe who could find themselves in the discussions for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. Watching the two of them share scenes is about as intense as it gets and it’s mounting throughout. Beyond their roles as lighthouse keepers, or “wickies”, everything you need to know flows from them. Just keep in mind that they are both horribly unreliable narrators and you’ll be just as lost as you’re supposed to. These two went all in for their characters and, in return, they are a ton of fun to watch even though there is no real grasp of what’s actually taking place throughout the course of the film. Communicating narrative substance to the audience is a bizarre dance between the two characters and Eggers. None of them can be trusted to give you a straight answer about anything…and it’s wonderful.

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My only expectation was that this was going to be weird and I was still surprised by how unusual it is. Someone could watch this, have absolutely no idea what’s going on, and leave with an overwhelmingly negative opinion. However, I found the opposite to be true.  There is a massive amount of tension and suspense surrounding the dramatic aspects of the film but it’s not without levity. There was a grand Hitchcockian architecture to the whole thing but Eggers still had the relative self-awareness to recognize what kind of film he was making and not take it or himself too seriously. 

It’s wonderfully shot by Jarin Blaschke and the 1.19:1 aspect ratio was a strange but ultimately smart choice paired with the black-and-white 35mm film. The narrower frame focused the audience’s attention on the filmmakers’ desired area while the coloration provided a great deal of depth to the production design, set decoration, and costumes. It also helped with the editing choices by Louise Ford. Being able to switch scenes with the simple use of a black transition rather than a hard jump allowed the shots to flow together in a much more natural way and really helped keep the audience focused. It’s easy to see this film was made with care, attention to detail, and adherence to a particular artistic vision. 

An example of the 1.19:1 aspect ratio

You aren’t going to see too many movies like this…ever. They get made, on occasion, and maybe even get picked up and distributed. However, availability and access aren’t always in lockstep. The Lighthouse is certainly one of the better films this year but it may end up on the bubble when it comes times to announce the Best Picture nominees.

Recommendation: See it if you can, just for the sheer creativity of it. The performances are well worth the price of admission as well and this is a good alternative for those looking for something different. 

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