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The Lighthouse (2019 film)

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The Lighthouse
Two men, one elderly and one young, stand in front of a lighthouse with stern looks as seagulls fly overhead.
Theatrical release poster
Directed byRobert Eggers
Written by
  • Robert Eggers
  • Max Eggers
Produced by
  • Rodrigo Teixeira
  • Jay Van Hoy
  • Robert Eggers
  • Lourenço Sant' Anna
  • Youree Henley
Starring
CinematographyJarin Blaschke
Edited byLouise Ford
Music byMark Korven
Production
companies
Distributed by
Release date
  • May 19, 2019 (2019-05-19) (Cannes)
  • October 18, 2019 (2019-10-18) (United States)
Running time
109 minutes[1]
Countries
LanguageEnglish
Budget$4 million[4]
Box office$18.1–18.3 million[5][4]

The Lighthouse is a 2019 film directed and produced by Robert Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Max Eggers. A gothic psychological horror film, it was an international co-production of the United States and Canada, with the film being shot in black-and-white with a nearly square 1.19:1 aspect ratio. Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson star as two lighthouse keepers who begin to descend into madness when a storm strands them on the remote island where they are stationed.

According to the director, although the final story bears little resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe's fragment "The Light-House", the film began as an attempt by his brother Max Eggers to create a contemporary take on the Poe story. When the project stalled, Robert offered to work with his brother, and the project evolved into a period thriller with the Poe elements largely removed. Dafoe and Pattinson were cast as the lead characters in February 2018. Principal photography began in April around the Canadian province of Nova Scotia and lasted a total of 34 days in Leif Erikson Park in Cape Forchu, and inside a hangar at Yarmouth Airport.

The film had its world premiere at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival on May 19, 2019, and was theatrically released on October 18, by A24 in the United States. The film was praised for its technical aspects (notably the cinematography and production design), Eggers' screenplay and direction, and the performances of the leads. It was nominated for Best Cinematography at the 92nd Academy Awards and 73rd British Academy Film Awards.

Plot[edit]

In the late 19th century, Ephraim Winslow serves a contract job as a wickie for a month on an isolated island off the coast of New England, under the supervision of the island's longtime keeper, Thomas Wake. In his quarters, Winslow discovers a small scrimshaw of a mermaid and keeps it in his jacket. Wake immediately proves to be very demanding, assigning Winslow increasingly taxing jobs such as emptying chamber pots, painting the lighthouse, and carrying heavy kerosene containers up the stairs, while forbidding him access to the lantern room; Winslow observes that every evening, Wake secretly ascends the lighthouse and disrobes before the light. During his stay on the island, Winslow begins to hallucinate sea monsters and logs floating in the sea, and masturbates to the mermaid on the scrimshaw. He also continues to observe Wake's strange ritual and is bothered by a one-eyed gull that Wake tells him not to kill, as he believes that gulls are reincarnated sailors. One evening while dining, Wake reveals to Winslow that his previous wickie died after losing his sanity, while Winslow reveals that he is a former timberman from Maine seeking a new trade.

The day before his scheduled departure, Winslow discovers a dead gull inside the cistern, bloodying its water. Winslow is again bothered by the one-eyed gull; he brutally kills it in anger. The wind drastically changes direction and a violent storm hits the island. Winslow and Wake spend the night getting drunk, and the storm rages through the next morning, preventing the relief ferry meant to pick up Winslow from arriving. As Winslow empties the chamber pots, he notices a body washed up on the shore and discovers that it is a mermaid, which awakens and howls at him. He flees back to the cottage, where Wake informs him that the storm has spoiled their rations, and that new ones will not arrive for weeks. The pair unearth a crate at the lighthouse's base that supposedly contains reserve rations, but contains only bottles of gin. In the following days, as the storm continues to rage, Winslow and Wake drink most of the gin, alternating between moments of intimacy and hostility. One night, Winslow tries unsuccessfully to steal the lantern room keys from Wake as he sleeps and contemplates stabbing him. He later hallucinates a lobster trap containing the one-eyed head of Wake's previous wickie. Winslow confesses to Wake that his real name is Thomas Howard and that he assumed the identity of the real Ephraim Winslow, his foreman who died in an accident Howard purposefully neglected to stop. Wake chases Howard down, accusing him of "spilling his beans" and destroys their only dory with an axe; once incapacitated, however, Wake claims that it was Howard who chased him and destroyed the dory.

With no alcohol left, the two begin drinking a concoction of turpentine and honey, while the storm worsens and starts flooding the cottage. The next morning, Howard finds Wake's soiled logbook, in which Wake has criticized him as drunk and incompetent and recommended he be sacked without pay. The two men argue, and Howard attacks Wake while hallucinating the mermaid, the real Winslow, and Wake as a Proteus-like figure. Howard beats Wake into submission and takes him to the hole at the base of the lighthouse to bury him alive. Wake curses Howard as he is buried, wishing him a "Promethean fate." Howard takes the keys to the lantern room, but Wake frees himself and strikes Howard with the axe. Howard disarms Wake and kills him before ascending the lighthouse. In the lantern room, the Fresnel lens opens to Howard, who reaches in and violently screams in distortion before slipping and falling down the lighthouse steps. Sometime later, a barely-living Howard lies naked on the rocks with a damaged eye as a flock of gulls peck at his exposed bowels.

Cast[edit]

  • Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow/Thomas Howard
  • Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake
  • Valeriia Karamän as the Mermaid
  • Logan Hawkes as the real Ephraim Winslow

Production[edit]

Development[edit]

Co-writer and director Robert Eggers

The original idea of The Lighthouse was first articulated at a dinner between director Robert Eggers and his younger brother Max Eggers. Robert was unhappy with his film industry prospects, for the pitching of his first major feature, The Witch (2015), failed to secure funding.[6][7] Max shared basic ideas from his screenplay, and his vision of a lighthouse-set ghost tale reflected his attempts to adapt Edgar Allan Poe's unfinished short story "The Light-House".[6] Adapting the short story proved troublesome, halting Max's progress on the script, then under the tentative working title Burnt Island.[6] Robert mused his own ideas to bolster the project's conceptualization at that point, and, with his brother's support, soon began investigating for source material.[6] One story that caught the director's attention in his initial research was a nineteenth-century myth of an incident at Smalls Lighthouse in Wales, wherein one of two wickies, both named Thomas, dies while trapped at their outpost by a destructive storm. That both men were named Thomas, Robert recalled, compelled him to create a film with an underlying story of identity.[8] By the time there was a realized concept, Robert momentarily stopped his commitment to The Lighthouse when he found a buyer to finance The Witch.[6]

After The Witch finished its theater rollout, the film's unexpected success elevated Robert's directing profile. To exploit his newfound credibility, he pushed The Lighthouse, one of several projects, in his negotiations with studio executives.[6] He and Max then resumed their work by exchanging drafts they revised accordingly. This coincided with more rigorous research of the period to develop the onscreen world: Robert immersed in photos of 1890s New England, 1930s maritime-themed French films, and symbolist art for visual reference.[6][8] The Eggers' study of literature with maritime and surrealist themes informed The Lighthouse characters' speech.[9] They looked into the writings of Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, H.P. Lovecraft, among others, before coming across literature from Sarah Orne Jewett, a novelist best known for her local color works set around the coast of Maine. Her dialect-heavy writing style provided the lead characters' cadences, rooted in the experiences of her own sailor characters and real-life farmers, fishermen and captains she had interviewed.[6][9] Robert and Max also deferred to a dissertation on Jewett's technique to guide their direction for intense conversational scenes.[6][9]

The Eggers' theater background was another force shaping The Lighthouse's creative direction. The two men sourced elements from playwrights that influenced their work as young teens, chiefly from artists whose writings examine male-centric perspectives of existential crises and psychosis.[6]

Casting[edit]

Actors Willem Dafoe (left) and Robert Pattinson (right). They portrayed lighthouse keepers marooned on a remote New England island by a violent storm.

The Lighthouse stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson. They both separately approached Eggers to express their enthusiasm for The Witch and their desire to collaborate.[10] Dafoe and Pattinson first met at a party, and Pattinson's participation was used as a selling point in pitches to Dafoe.[11] Their signings were announced separately to the media in February 2018.[12][13] Robert's initial film proposals with Dafoe were not fruitful.[6][11] When they met in person to discuss The Lighthouse, the director was plainspoken in the conversation. Dafoe recalled, "There was no discussion. 'This is the way we're going to do this. My way or the highway.' That's very unusual, especially for a two-hander, for a director to say, 'This is the way I see it. Yes or no?'"[11]

Pattinson and Robert originally met to negotiate terms for an unrelated project. Pattinson was offered, and passed on portraying a Victorian socialite because he believed the role would fail to challenge his acting ability.[6] His next meeting with Robert took place once he finished reading The Lighthouse's completed script. During the conversation, Pattinson showed Robert a clip of an intoxicated man screaming "I am a demon" to convey this understanding of the director's vision.[6]

To prepare for their respective roles, each actor employed different techniques at the rehearsals. Dafoe was spontaneous in his performance, citing his theater background with the experimental troupe The Wooster Group, whereas Pattinson planned his rehearsing from the discussion of the script.[6][10]

Filming[edit]

A lighthouse
The Lighthouse film set, Nova Scotia

Principal photography began on April 9, 2018, in Canada,[14][15] lasting 34 days.[16] Filming took place in Cape Forchu, a fishing village in southern Nova Scotia.[16] Because the filmmakers found no lighthouse suitable for the needs of the production, they constructed a 70-foot (20-meter) lighthouse set for their base of operations.[6][17] Elsewhere regionally, the production filmed scenes at Leif Erikson Park and inside a hangar at Yarmouth Airport.[18][19] The Lighthouse's filming became a difficult undertaking as a combination of remote location, complex logistics, and harsh climate precipitated a stressful work environment.[6][17]

From the beginning, Eggers wanted to shoot the film in black and white and a "narrow, vintage" aspect ratio.[6] Consequently, The Lighthouse was shot on black and white 35mm film, with an orthochromatic aesthetic that evokes 19th-century photography, as well as a nearly square 1.19:1 aspect ratio that corresponds to narrow sets and seeks to withhold information from the audience. Jarin Blaschke, who had previously collaborated with Eggers on The Witch and served as the film's director of photography,[20][21] stated that "The idea of widescreen only came about in the 1950s—we wanted to take people back further than that."[22] Blaschke and Eggers achieved the aesthetic of The Lighthouse by using a combination of film tools. The entire film was shot on Panavision Millennium XL2 cameras that were equipped with a vintage 1930s Baltar lens, and black-and-white Eastman Double-X 5222 film was used with a custom short pass filter. Blaschke almost exclusively set his aperture to T2.8, setting only the characters as the focus of shots. Due to the low sensitivity of the film used on set, 8k and 9k HMI lights were used through the entirety of filming, as natural light could not suffice. HMI light was bounced off muslin cloths for daytime scenes. Low voltage bulbs and china lights were used to light nighttime and closeup scenes.[23]

Themes[edit]

Style[edit]

The Lighthouse genre was described by critics such as Manohla Dargis of The New York Times as a horror film and Lee Marshall of Screen Daily as a psychological thriller.[24][2] Other critics, such as Owen Gleiberman of Variety stated that the film was one that could not be pigeonholed, declaring that "you may feel in your bones that you’re watching a supernatural shocker [...] Are we seeing a slice of survival, a horror film, or a study in slow-brewing mutual insanity? How about all of the above?"[25] Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune echoed these statements, noting that the film's plot did not operate "as any sort of conventional ghost story, or thriller, or anything".[26]

Psychoanalysis[edit]

Eggers admitted that he was heavily influenced by the work of Carl Jung,[27] and hoped that "it’s a movie where both Jung and Freud would be furiously eating their popcorn".[28] According to Pattinson the phallic imagery of the lighthouse is explicit, as Eggers described it as an erect penis in the script.[28] The film was meant to include “a very juvenile shot of a lighthouse moving like an erect penis and a match-cut to [Pattinson's] actual erect penis”, although this cut was removed upon request by financiers.[29] Winslow displays an Oedipal fixation on his boss Thomas, given his simultaneous fear and admiration of him. Pattinson commented on the father/son dynamic in the film, stating "I was pretty conscious of how I wanted the relationship to come across. In a lot of ways, he sort of wants a daddy."[28] As the film progresses, Winslow is increasingly "looking for Willem [Dafoe]'s validation" both as a boss and as a father figure.[30]

Mythology[edit]

The Sea Monster (c. 1493–1503) by Albrecht Dürer

Eggers was inspired by sailors' myths and classical mythology. After finally obtaining the light, and the knowledge of what is in the light, Howard falls to his death down the stairs of the lighthouse and his organs are plucked out by seagulls, invoking the myth of Prometheus. Wake was modeled on Proteus, a "prophecy-telling ocean god who serves Poseidon." Not only is he later shown with tentacles and sea creatures stuck to his body, but "he also makes that uncannily accurate prediction for how Ephraim will die at the end of the movie."[27] Albrecht Dürer's engraving The Sea Monster inspired Wake's appearance: Eggers said "The Proteus figure that is more clearly nautical is somewhat based on a sea monster by Dürer, who carries a tortoise shell shield."[31]

Eggers explains his mythological inspiration for the film: it's "partially because [Herman] Melville goes there and partially because of I'm sure our unhealthy Jungian leanings you get into classical mythology in this movie."[32]

Androeroticism[edit]

Hypnosis (1904) by Sascha Schneider

Robert Eggers has refused to concretely state whether the characters are gay or straight, stating: "Am I saying these characters are gay? No. I'm not saying they're not either. Forget about complexities of human sexuality or their particular inclinations. I'm more about questions than answers in this movie."[28] Sexual fantasy and masturbation are recurring themes in the film. For Dafoe, the androeroticism in the film is blatant, but it is also used to explore what it means to be a man: "They have a sense of guilt, of wrong [...] it's got existential roots [...] about masculinity and domination and submission."[28] After beating Wake into submission, Howard assumes a dominant role, calling Wake "dog" and dragging him on a leash. Commenting on this scene, Pattinson stated that, "there's definitely a take where we were literally trying to pull each other's pants down. It literally almost looked like foreplay."[33]

The film's mythological and artistic influences underscore its eroticism. Eggers acknowledged the visual influence of symbolist artists Sascha Schneider and Jean Delville, whose "mythic paintings in a homoerotic style," he said, "[became] perfect candidates as imagery that's going to work itself into the script."[34] The composition of a shot in the film was consciously adapted from Schneider's Hypnosis.[31][35]

Release[edit]

The Lighthouse had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in the Directors' Fortnight section on May 19, 2019.[36] It was also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Atlantic Film Festival in September 2019.[37] The film was distributed by A24 in North America and by Focus Features internationally.[38] It was released on October 18, 2019.[39]

Reception[edit]

Box office[edit]

The Lighthouse grossed $10.9 million in the United States and $7.1 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $18.1–18.3 million.[5][4] In its limited opening weekend on October 18, the film grossed $419,764 from eight theaters, for an average of $52,471 per venue.[40][41] In its second weekend the film expanded to 586 theaters, grossing $3.75 million, eighth at the box office.[42] The following weekend, the film expanded to 978 theaters, falling 34.7% to $2 million and finishing 13th.[43][44]

Critical response[edit]

On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 90% based on 381 reviews, with an average rating of 8/10. The site's critics' consensus reads, "A gripping story brilliantly filmed and led by a pair of powerhouse performances, The Lighthouse further establishes Robert Eggers as a filmmaker of exceptional talent."[45] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 83 out of 100, based on 51 critics, indicating "universal acclaim."[46]

Owen Gleiberman of Variety called the film "darkly exciting" and "made with extraordinary skill," commenting that "the movie, building on The Witch, proves that Robert Eggers possesses something more than impeccable genre skill. He has the ability to lock you into the fever of what's happening onscreen."[25] Robbie Collin of The Daily Telegraph gave the film a perfect score, calling Dafoe's performance "astounding" and comparing Pattinson's to that of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, commenting, "that's no comparison to make lightly, but everything about The Lighthouse lands with a crash. It's cinema to make your head and soul ring."[47]

Writing for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw also praised the performances of Dafoe and Pattinson, in addition to the screenplay stating "Their script is barnacled with resemblances to Coleridge, Shakespeare, Melville – and there’s also some staggeringly cheeky black-comic riffs and gags and the two of them resemble no-one so much as Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H Corbett: Steptoe and Son in hell."[48] From The New York Times, Manohla Dargis gave positive remarks to the character development, production design, acting, and themes.[24] From the Chicago Tribune, Michael Phillips gave a mostly positive review where he recommended the film to readers, compared it to The Odd Couple (1968) and The Dumb Waiter (1957), and lauded the cinematography while giving the feature three stars out of five.[26]

While The Sydney Morning Herald said its attempts at suspense were not successful,[49] the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned that everything in The Lighthouse was well-made to the point that it was brought down due to its screenplay.[50] The Guardian's Simran Hans gave it two stars out of five and said the performances felt more like an "experiment than conducive to eliciting meaning."[51] For Slate, Dana Stevens summarized by stating that "'The Lighthouse is at its strongest when it resembles the dark comedy of a [Samuel] Beckett play, complete with earthy scatological humor [but] the film sometimes seems funny in a different way [...] in spite of the filmmakers' intentions. Its effect on movie audiences is less spiritually corrupting [but] I found myself identifying with the stranded seafarers: I desperately wanted to get out."[52]

Accolades[edit]

Awards and nominations received by The Lighthouse (2019 film)
Award Date of ceremony Category Recipient(s) Result Ref.
Academy Awards February 9, 2020 Best Cinematography Jarin Blaschke Nominated [53]
Austin Film Critics Association January 6, 2020 Best Supporting Actor Willem Dafoe Nominated [54][55]
Best Cinematography Jarin Blaschke Nominated
British Academy Film Awards February 2, 2020 Best Cinematography Nominated [56][57]
Cannes Film Festival May 25, 2019 FIPRESCI Prize – Directors' Fortnight/Critics' Week Robert Eggers Won [58]
Chicago Film Critics Association December 14, 2019 Best Cinematography Jarin Blaschke Nominated [59]
Critics' Choice Movie Awards January 12, 2020 Best Supporting Actor Willem Dafoe Nominated [60]
Best Cinematography Jarin Blaschke Nominated
Detroit Film Critics Society December 9, 2019 Best Actor Robert Pattinson Nominated [61]
Best Supporting Actor Willem Dafoe Nominated
Best Screenplay Robert Eggers & Max Eggers Nominated
Georgia Film Critics Association January 10, 2020 Best Supporting Actor Willem Dafoe Nominated [62]
Best Cinematography Jarin Blaschke Nominated
Best Production Design Craig Lathrop, Matt Likely Nominated
Gotham Awards December 2, 2019 Best Actor Willem Dafoe Nominated [63]
Hollywood Critics Association Awards January 9, 2020 Best Cinematography Jarin Blaschke Nominated [64]
Houston Film Critics Society January 2, 2020 Best Supporting Actor Willem Dafoe Nominated [65]
Independent Spirit Awards February 8, 2020 Best Director Robert Eggers Nominated [66]
Best Male Lead Robert Pattinson Nominated
Best Supporting Male Willem Dafoe Won
Best Editing Louise Ford Nominated
Best Cinematography Jarin Blaschke Won
London Film Critics' Circle Awards January 30, 2020 British / Irish Actor of the Year Robert Pattinson Won [67]
San Diego Film Critics Society December 9, 2019 Best Supporting Actor Willem Dafoe Nominated [68][69]
Best Cinematography Jarin Blaschke Won
San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle December 16, 2019 Best Supporting Actor Willem Dafoe Nominated [70][71]
Satellite Awards December 19, 2019 Best Motion Picture – Drama The Lighthouse Nominated [72]
Best Supporting Actor Willem Dafoe Won
Seattle Film Critics Society December 16, 2019 Best Picture The Lighthouse Nominated [73]
Best Director Robert Eggers Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Willem Dafoe Won
Best Cinematography Jarin Blaschke Nominated
St. Louis Film Critics Association December 15, 2019 Best Horror Film The Lighthouse Nominated [74]
Best Cinematography Jarin Blaschke Runner-up
Toronto Film Critics Association December 8, 2019 Best Supporting Actor Willem Dafoe Runner-up [75]
Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association December 8, 2019 Best Cinematography Jarin Blaschke Nominated [76]

See also[edit]

  • La León, a 2007 Argentine film exploring similar themes and visuals

References[edit]

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