The Lighthouse (2019 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Robert Eggers|
|Music by||Mark Korven|
|Edited by||Louise Ford|
|Box office||$18 million|
The Lighthouse is a 2019 psychological horror film directed and co-produced by Robert Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Max Eggers. An international co-production of the United States and Canada, the film was shot in black-and-white with a nearly square 1.19:1 aspect ratio. It stars Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as two lighthouse keepers who start to lose their sanity when a storm strands them on the remote island where they are stationed.
According to Eggers, 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 do a contemporary take on the Poe story. When the project stalled, Eggers 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 on April 9, 2018, and lasted a total of 34 days in Leif Erikson Park in Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia, Canada, and inside a hangar at Yarmouth Airport in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.
The film had its world premiere at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival on May 19, and was theatrically released on October 18, 2019, by A24. 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.
In the late 19th century, Ephraim Winslow serves a contract job as a wickie for four weeks on an isolated island off the coast of New England, under the supervision of an irritable elderly man named Thomas Wake. On the first day, Winslow notices a hole in his cot, finding a small scrimshaw of a mermaid within it and stuffing it in his jacket. Winslow observes Wake going up to the lighthouse's lantern room at night and stripping naked. Winslow begins experiencing visions and dreams of giant tentacles in the lighthouse, logs floating in the water and distant images of a mermaid.
Over the course of his stay, Wake demands Winslow take the more taxing jobs—refueling the light, carrying heavy kerosene containers, and disposing of the two men's chamber pots, all the while refusing to let him enter the lantern room. As the weeks progress, Winslow repeatedly encounters an aggressive one-eyed gull. Wake warns Winslow that it is bad luck to kill a gull, as he is superstitious that they are reincarnated sailors. The weeks continue, and Winslow masturbates to the scrimshaw and continues to see Wake naked. One night at dinner, the two get to know each other and discuss Wake's previous wickie, who Wake says died shortly after losing his sanity. Winslow reveals that he used to work in Canada as a timberman, but decided to change professions.
The day before Winslow is due to leave, he notices the water pump is releasing bloody water and investigates. He checks the cistern to see a dying gull floating inside. The one-eyed seagull flies down and attacks Winslow, who grabs it and beats it to death. Soon after, the winds change direction and a storm hits the island that night. The next morning, the relief ferry does not arrive and Winslow sees a body washed up on the shore. He approaches it and realizes that it is a mermaid, which awakens and howls at him. He runs back into the cottage, where Wake informs him that their rations were spoiled by the storm. Winslow inquires about the ferry, but Wake insists that weeks, in fact, have passed since it was due to arrive. They dig up a crate supposed to contain extra rations but find only more alcohol.
More days pass, the storm continues, and the two men grow closer while remaining adversarial. Winslow has visions of a lobster trap containing the severed, half-blinded head of Wake's previous wickie. One night, Winslow tells Wake that his real name is Thomas Howard and that he assumed the identity of Ephraim Winslow, his foreman who died in an accident Howard neglected to stop. Wake accuses Howard of "spilling his beans" and Howard tries to leave on a dory, but Wake destroys it with an axe. Wake chases Howard into the cottage, but inside, Wake claims that it was Howard who attacked him. With no alcohol left, the two begin mixing spirits out of turpentine and honey, and the storm becomes so powerful that waves crash through the cottage's windows.
The next morning, Howard finds Wake's logbook, in which Wake has written a critical report of Howard's performance and recommended he be sacked without pay. Howard confronts Wake, and Wake calls Howard a liar. Howard begs to be shown the light in the lantern room. Wake berates Howard and Howard attacks him. While seeing visions of the mermaid, Wake as a sea monster, and the real Winslow, Howard beats Wake into submission. Howard leashes Wake and buries him alive while he curses Howard to a "Promethean fate." Howard takes the keys and prepares to go up to the lantern room, but Wake appears and strikes him with the axe. Howard disarms Wake and kills him before ascending the lighthouse. He approaches the Fresnel lens, and it stops and opens up to him. Howard gazes into the mirrored interior in ecstasy and reaches in, screaming in distortion as the light brightens before slipping, breaking his leg and falling down the lighthouse steps. A barely-living Howard is finally seen lying naked on the rocks with a damaged eye as several gulls peck at his innards.
- Robert Pattinson as Ephraim Winslow/Thomas Howard
- Willem Dafoe as Thomas Wake
- Valeriia Karamän as the Mermaid
- Logan Hawkes as Ephraim Winslow
The Lighthouse began as an attempt by Max Eggers to adapt "The Light-House," an unfinished short story by Edgar Allan Poe. Robert Eggers became aware of his brother's effort while trying to pitch his debut feature, The Witch, to studios. Max's project stalled, after which Robert offered to work on it based on his own vision. The final story, co-written by Robert and Max, bears no resemblance to the Poe work apart from the title.
The literature of Maine-based writer Sarah Orne Jewett served as a significant point of reference for the dialects used in The Lighthouse. Maritime and surrealistic elements from the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson also informed the writing of the film. According to Eggers, a 19th-century incident at Smalls Lighthouse in Wales involving two lighthouse keepers (both named Thomas, as in the film) was an additional source of inspiration - the story was made into the 2016 British film of the same name.
In February 2018, it was announced Willem Dafoe had been cast in the film. Dafoe had previously contacted Robert Eggers via email, expressing his admiration for The Witch and offering to work with the director in the future. When The Lighthouse was greenlit, Eggers offered Dafoe one of the leads. Later in February 2018, Robert Pattinson joined the cast.
From the beginning, Eggers wanted to shoot the film in black and white and a "narrow, vintage" aspect ratio. 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, stated that "The idea of widescreen only came about in the 1950s—we wanted to take people back further than that." 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.
Principal photography began on April 9, 2018, and lasted a total of 34 days. Filming took place in Leif Erikson Park in Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia, Canada, and inside a hangar at Yarmouth Airport in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. The shoot was noted for the difficulties the cast and crew encountered, as a result of the remote location, the unfavourable weather and the complexity of the shots Eggers and Blaschke had devised.
A 70-foot (20-meter) working lighthouse was constructed specifically for the film, which according to Eggers could shine for 16 miles (25 kilometers).
Eggers admitted that he was heavily influenced by the work of Carl Jung, and hoped that "it’s a movie where both Jung and Freud would be furiously eating their popcorn". According to Pattinson the phallic imagery of the lighthouse is explicit, as Eggers described it as an erect penis in the script. 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. 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". As the film progresses, Winslow is increasingly "looking for Willem [Dafoe]'s validation" both as a boss and as a father figure.
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". 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."
Eggers explains his mythological inspiration for the film: it's "partially because [Herman] Melville goes there and partially because I'm sure our unhealthy Jungian leanings you get into classical mythology in this movie".
The Lighthouse deals explicitly with alcoholism. Robert Pattinson described Winslow as being early in his sobriety at the start of the film. Although Winslow denies the liquor that Wake serves him on his first night, he soon realizes that the water on the island is undrinkable due to the contamination of the water system. He quickly turns to alcohol to cope with the immense labor and his aggressive relationship with Wake. Manohla Dargis of The New York Times notes that "the men's sloppy, alcohol-saturated time together produces intimacy but also menace. They laugh, descending into riotous drunkenness and finding connection that both they and Eggers skitter around."
For Michaela Barton of Flipscreened, "this film is so clearly gay that an analysis of its homoerotic subtext would be like arguing the sky is blue". 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".
Wake frequently compliments Winslow's physical appearance, calling him "pretty as a picture" and describing his eyes as “bright as a lady”. Barton interprets Howard's name change to his previous, deceased boss as indicative of a more intimate relationship: "Considering the act of Tommy taking his name, this behavior suggests a tender and affectionate attitude, almost like the tradition of taking your partner's name after marriage". When asked about the scene in which Winslow criticizes Wake's cooking, Wake's desperate need for validation of his lobster is a euphemism for his penis.
Sexual fantasy and masturbation are recurring themes in the film. Winslow frequently masturbates to the mermaid figurine throughout the film. He fantasizes of a mermaid washed up on the shore. When he sees her enlarged vagina (based off shark genitalia) he runs screaming. Barton interprets his reaction, stating that it "is fairly obvious – the mermaid was never Tommy’s siren. His true siren is revealed a little later."
For Dafoe, the homoeroticism in the film is blatant, but it is also used to explore what it means to be a man: "Toxic masculinity! They’re pushing each other’s buttons out of fear and out of threat of who they are. And they’re both guilty. They have a sense of guilt, of wrong. There’s no moral judgment in this story. It’s just to watch these two guys struggling to find a way to survive themselves, really... It’s a simple story, but it’s got existential roots and identity things and things about masculinity and domination and submission. And for better and for worse. Then you see it flip-flop and it’s kind of cool." 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”.
The film's mythological and artistic influences underscore its homoeroticism. 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". The composition of a shot in the film was consciously adapted from Schneider's Hypnosis, an image that readily lends itself (and the film) to queer interpretations.
The Lighthouse had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in the Directors' Fortnight section on May 19, 2019. It was also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the Atlantic Film Festival in September 2019. The film was distributed by A24 in North America and by Focus Features internationally. It was released on October 18, 2019.
In its limited opening weekend on October 18, the film grossed $419,764 from eight theaters, for an average of $52,471 per venue. In its second weekend the film expanded to 586 theaters, grossing $3 million and finishing eighth at the box office. The following weekend, the film expanded to 978 theaters, falling 34.7% to $2 million and finishing 13th.
On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 90% based on 359 reviews, with an average rating of 8.06/10. 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." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 83 out of 100, based on 51 critics, indicating "universal acclaim."
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." 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."
|Award||Date of ceremony||Category||Recipient(s)||Result|
|Academy Awards||February 9, 2020||Best Cinematography||Jarin Blaschke||Nominated|
|Austin Film Critics Association||January 6, 2020||Best Supporting Actor||Willem Dafoe||Nominated|
|Best Cinematography||Jarin Blaschke||Nominated|
|British Academy Film Awards||February 2, 2020||Best Cinematography||Nominated|
|Cannes Film Festival||May 25, 2019||FIPRESCI Prize – Directors' Fortnight/Critics' Week||Robert Eggers||Won|
|Chicago Film Critics Association||December 14, 2019||Best Cinematography||Jarin Blaschke||Nominated|
|Critics' Choice Movie Awards||January 12, 2020||Best Supporting Actor||Willem Dafoe||Nominated|
|Best Cinematography||Jarin Blaschke||Nominated|
|Detroit Film Critics Society||December 9, 2019||Best Actor||Robert Pattinson||Nominated|
|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|
|Best Cinematography||Jarin Blaschke||Nominated|
|Best Production Design||Craig Lathrop, Matt Likely||Nominated|
|Gotham Awards||December 2, 2019||Best Actor||Willem Dafoe||Nominated|
|Hollywood Critics Association Awards||January 9, 2020||Best Cinematography||Jarin Blaschke||Nominated|
|Houston Film Critics Society||January 2, 2020||Best Supporting Actor||Willem Dafoe||Nominated|
|Independent Spirit Awards||February 8, 2020||Best Director||Robert Eggers||Nominated|
|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|
|San Diego Film Critics Society||December 9, 2019||Best Supporting Actor||Willem Dafoe||Nominated|
|Best Cinematography||Jarin Blaschke||Won|
|San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle||December 16, 2019||Best Supporting Actor||Willem Dafoe||Nominated|
|Satellite Awards||December 19, 2019||Best Motion Picture – Drama||The Lighthouse||Nominated|
|Best Supporting Actor||Willem Dafoe||Won|
|Seattle Film Critics Society||December 16, 2019||Best Picture||The Lighthouse||Nominated|
|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|
|Best Cinematography||Jarin Blaschke||runner-up|
|Toronto Film Critics Association||December 8, 2019||Best Supporting Actor||Willem Dafoe||runner-up|
|Washington D.C. Area Film Critics Association||December 8, 2019||Best Cinematography||Nominated|
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