Cannes Film Fest 2019: The Lighthouse–Eggers’ Bold, Ambitious, Haunting Sophomore Success

One of the most hauntingly original and most technically striking films I have seen at the 2019 Cannes Film Fest is Robert Eggers’ stunning sophomore effort, The Lighthouse.

The film, which was made and will be released by the entrepreneurial A24,  world-premiered at the fest’s sidebar, Directors’ Fortnight.  However, for me, it’s far more interesting than at least half of the films in this year’s main competition.

Robert Eggers and his scenarist-brother Max Eggers have fashioned a creepy yet dazzling horror tale, laced with dark, often grotesque humor.  The movie proves two things, that they are supremely talented, and that the success of Robert’s debut, The Witch,  a prize winner at the 2015 Sundance Fest, was no accident or a fluke.

Working with a bigger budget, director Eggers has cast the film with two superb actors, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, who demonstrate such strong onscreen chemistry that’s it’s almost impossible to imagine the movie without them.

Set in 1890s New England, The Lighthouse is largely confined to a single locale, but what a captivating setting it is. The opening image of a boat slowly emerging out of a sea, marked by both mist and tumult, is nothing short of breathtaking.  It immediately sets off the tone for an intimate drama, unfolding on a far and remote island, in which two vastly different men will have to face–and be at the mercy of–not only each other, but also nature and its ferocious elements.

At the start, viewers are introduced to the main characters, lighthouse keepers Thomas Wake (Dafoe), an experienced and arrogant old “wickie,” and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), his younger and novice assistant. The duo (sort of an Odd Couple) set foot on a tiny island where they will spend the next four weeks, unaware of what would be awaiting them during that time.

Gradually, we learn about the psychological make-up of each eccentric man. Wake is a temperamental slave driver who has allegedly drove his last assistant into madness; he’s a macho man who doesn’t believe in norms or regulations. In contrast, Winslow, who’s on his first assignment as a keeper, is more insecure and serious; early on, he refuses to drink and have fun with Wake, which is not taken well by the latter.

A case of incongruent roommates? A cat-and-mouse thriller? A game of one-upmanship? Which man will have the upper hand, at what price, and under what circumstances?  Does the lighthouse itself hold mysteries or secrets of the past? These are some of the issues addressed by the script, which may be richer in subtext than text; there are long stretches of time that are wordless.

One thing is clear, neither man would emerge more sober, better-adjusted, and more intact at the end of what promises to be a hell of a month–both literally and figuratively.

As director, Eggers shows mature confidence in building up tension in a steady manner, without relying on the genre’s more conventional tricks and gimmicks.  This strategy keeps the viewers in a state of suspense, knowing that eventually there would be a climactic encounter, or rather a series of confrontations.

Needless to say, neither man is really what he seems or pretends to be.  As played by Dafoe, Wake is a surly former sea captain, with sometimes an unexpected soft and sentimental side. And as interpreted by Pattinson, Winslow may seem quiet and subservient, but under the some conditions, he could be sly, scheming, and spiteful.

Dafoe is a veteran character actor, with four Oscar nominations under his belt, three in the Supporting league and one (last year) as Best Actor for At Eternity’s Gate.  As such, he is one of the most modest, least honored actor of his generation. It is unfortunate that Pattinson is still thought of by many critics and viewers as a romantic heartthrob, a handsome movie star, who can also act.  The two thespians, who give powerhouse, Oscar-caliber performances, play off each other extremely well. We watch them as they’re endlessly engaged in a dynamic interactional process, defined by both role-playing and role-reversals.

Eggers shot The Lighthouse on 35mm film, utilizing the unusual 1.19:1 aspect ratio, which calls attention to the gorgeous spatial arrangements and unsettling vertical compositions.  Cinematographer Jarin Blashcke should be commended for his immeasurable contribution.  He lights interiors sparingly, often leaving entire dialogue scenes to play out in near-darkness.

Blashcke and Eggers’ noir visual vocabulary has already prompted discussions among critics of the impact of silent cinema, especially in the rigorous play of lights and shadows, on this particular movie.

Some goofy humor is inserted into the otherwise macabre horror tale. For example, pay attention to the strange, active role played by a devious and cantankerous seagull (remember the goat in The Witch?). And there’s a surreal sequence where Winslow experiences an erotic fantasy about a mermaid, which Pattinson executes most convincingly.

Mark Korven’s score and Damian Volpe’s sound design make a most effective contribution to the overall ambience of gloom and unsettling menace.

Bold and ambitious from first frame to last, The Lighthouse is an artistic highlight of the 2019 Canes Film Fest, and a testament to the continuous viability of American Independent Cinema.

 

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