There are few scarier feelings in life than being trapped.
Whether it’s in a lousy job or an unhealthy relationship, feeling like there is nowhere to turn can be terrifying. Many in my generation in the United States feel this way; trapped in student loan debt, trapped in tedious underpaid jobs, or trapped on a planet in an environmental crisis that threatens our future. Being a millennial can sometimes feel like being stuck in a world that does not value you. I suspect that Robert Eggers had these anxieties in mind when he made The Lighthouse. It’s not only bleak, engrossing, and genuinely horrifying, it’s also one of the timeliest horror films released this year.
The plot chronicles the daily life of lighthouse keeper Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), living on an isolated island with elderly and eccentric Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). As the job becomes more monotonous and conflict brews between them, Ephraim slowly loses track of time and descends into madness. From a writing standpoint, the film isn’t plot-heavy, instead using the visuals to reflect Ephraim’s perspective of his work. Thanks to Eggers’ excellent use of the film’s creepy setting and production design, he succeeds at making Ephraim’s job a representation of his deteriorating mental state.
Eggers’ sophomore film since 2015’s The Witch, The Lighthouse further showcases his masterly ability to suck the audience into the film’s atmosphere. The black-and-white, grainy cinematography not only roots the film in its 1800’s setting, it also amplifies the ugliness of Ephraim’s limited world. The battered house and fierce storms are viscerally shot, reinforcing how isolated Ephraim and Thomas truly are. The film’s tight, square aspect ratio traps the audience on the island with Ephraim and Thomas as it emphasizes the feeling of unease and discomfort that enhances the otherworldly tone. The sound design effectively builds a cloistering and aggressive mood. The clanking gears, the crashing waves, the bellowing foghorns, and screeching seagulls give the island a personality. It makes the island domineering, like an unearthly force that seizes you in its wet, metal clutches. The production design as a whole was so enveloping that I swear I felt a chill in the theater air.
The performances are all great in very distinct ways. Robert Pattinson, as Ephraim, demonstrates a subtle boiling performance, leading to a bombastic finish. As he toils at his posts, you feel his passive anger, pining for a chance to leave this wretched island. On the other end of the spectrum, practically unrecognizable, Willem Dafoe becomes Thomas. His wild mannerisms and sea-captain drawl fit the character perfectly, with an over-the-top performance. Both Pattinson and Defoe have excellent chemistry between them, as the employee/boss power-dynamic is clearly evident. Their conflict is relatable to anyone who has to work for a difficult manager.
The Lighthouse is another excellent entry in Robert Eggers’ growing filmography. He takes the Lovecraftian idea of unknowable, otherworldly forces toying with the minds of men and weaves a terrifying tale of monotony and madness. Eggers gives frightening representation to the working-class struggle for financial stability, as Ephraim’s endless toiling pushes him and the audience, on the path to insanity.
The Lighthouse is now playing in theaters.