The Lighthouse draws a fine line between sanity and madness

Áine O'Boyle

Robert Pattinson delivers an extraordinary portrayal of madness in one of his most challenging roles to date: that of Ephraim Winslow in Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse”. 

Proving that he is so much more than Edward Cullen ever could be, Pattinson delivers a performance that highlights the fine line that exists between sanity and insanity with the help of Willem Dafoe, playing the experienced seahand, Thomas Wake. 

Set in the 19th century off the coast of New England, “The Lighthouse” develops the story of of Ephraim Winslow as he is sent on a boat to serve as a wickie on an isolated island under the close supervision of the irritable Thomas Wake. 

The film itself is shot in 35mm monochrome, using elements common to that of early cinema to bring an old tale to a contemporary audience. The 1.19:1 aspect ratio also means that the film has a square ratio, which draws comparisons to the style of film used during the silent movie era. 

According to Eggers, “Nothing good can happen when two men are left alone on a giant phallus.”, and after watching this film, one can confirm that this sentiment remains true. 

Pattinson brilliantly portrays the mundanity of everyday life on the island, with slight changes between scenes serving to create an impression of eeriness. Left to the more laborious tasks of maintaining machinery, hauling kerosene lamps up flights of stairs, emptying chamber pots, mending and cleaning the house, he slowly becomes more disheartened and enraged with his current post. 

Upon finding out that the former wickie in the post died on the island following a bout of lunacy, things begin to take an eerie turn. Following a tiff with an annoying seagull that nearly ended in it being killed, Winslow finds himself making enemies with the bird as it starts to stalk him around. According to Wake, the seagull contains the soul of a dead sailor, and ought not to be messed with. 

From then on we start to see Winslow spiral into maddening insanity as he becomes obsessed with Wake’s fixation to the light of the lighthouse and finds himself having sexual fantasies about mermaid’s. 

The situation is further exacerbated by Winslow and Wake’s tendency towards alcohol after a hard day’s toll, beginning in amicable humor and ending in drunken fights. 

The film itself is too complex to be boxed off into a genre. Eggers himself declined to answer which genre the film belonged to, saying: “It makes it a misshapen beast of genre for sure.”

Eggers has no qualms with the film being referred to as a horror, a psychological thriller, a suspense or a cosmic horror. 

“I think all these terms are just helpful for people to talk about things that they like,” he said. 

According to Eggers, the film intentionally has no direct storyline, potentially making it a difficult watch for many viewers, but for the most part, this simply adds to the complexity of the tale itself. 

For what it lacks in subtlety, “The Lighthouse” makes up for in stunning cinematography and obscure storytelling. 

Áine O’Boyle

Image Credit: The Lighthouse