Over the last several days since viewing the dark and mesmerizing trailer for director Robert Eggers’ (The Witch) new film The Lighthouse I’ve not been able to shake the feeling of impending dread that the just under two minute black and white montage of stark images induces while watching it. “How long have we been on this rock,” a weathered and stark Willem Dafoe asks his not much better off co-star Robert Pattinson in the story about two lighthouse keepers confronted by utter and total solitude, where their very sanity seems altogether tenuous. “Five weeks? Two days? Help me to recollect,” Dafoe intones blankly with the best thousand yard stare ever committed to film.
When I was in high school I read the Nathaniel Hawthorne short story Young Goodman Brown and was struck by the same things then which so helplessly captivate me now while watching The Lighthouse assemblage of clips: An economy of words and action are the rule in both stories and what action there is in either parable seems to stem more from inaction. Both, too, are psychological Rorschach tests that rely more on what is not seen and the readers (or viewers) own interpretation of the dark parade that marches before us. Is it truly something ominous, or is it a matter of our own runaway imaginations reading more into something than is actually there?
“It was as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveler knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead,” Hawthorne wrote in his own treatise about human isolation and the odd musings of the human mind in such situations. He could just as easily have written this after hand wringing his way through Eggers’ newest nightmare and the night after watching the trailer for The Lighthouse I found myself walking home late at night and contemplating those very words as I thought about this new movie.
The Lighthouse is shot in old school black and white and this facet of the film has stayed with me more than anything else: In an era when 4K uber-digital, wall to wall surround sound and CGI imagery pervades 21st Century cinema we’ve almost forgotten that it is sometimes the simpler tricks in a storyteller’s bag is the most stunningly effective. Such is the case here with the director’s decision to cast his actors and scenery in a claustrophobic web diluted of bright colors. Watching scenes from the upcoming film we get even more the sense of loneliness and isolation at what looks to be the end of the edge of the world. The landscape becomes even more oppressive and harsh and suddenly it is almost too easy to understand why two men tasked with the unenviable job of manning a lighthouse for any length of time might just begin to ply their existence in the same ambiguous madness as Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown.
Dafoe looks to deliver yet another stunning performance (Pay attention, Oscars!), yet it is Robert Pattinson who is the real revelation here: His era as a teen idol is thankfully over with and he projects nothing less than an actor who is ready to roll up his sleeves and get to the business of delivering a performance for the ages: Gaunt with haunted eyes, his voice, his entire self seems hollowed out and ravaged as if he is a person who has been given a sneak-peak into a desolate hell that threatens to engulf him and his fellow lighthouse keeper.
There is a third character unbilled in The Lighthouse and that is Mother Nature herself. Here she is not given to bright and sunny days but rather seems content to roll over with mighty and unreasonable wrath the tiny rock crag and the two men guarding it. The whistle from her wind might as well be a trumpet crying for the end of all of the world, the torrential rain she sends down seem Biblical in nature. The Lighthouse features no ghosts rattling about with chains, no demonic entity that can be dispelled with simple catechisms. Instead, the boogeyman of the story is isolation, fear and slowly descending madness.
I’ll continue to think about The Lighthouse until its October 18 release and I’m sure between that and comparisons of it in my mind to Hawthorne’s Young Goodman Brown I’ll walk just a little bit faster through the dark to get to my own personal lighthouse, its tinny gold-yellow glow beckoning me from a distance.