There is an incredible sense of claustrophobia that immediately makes itself felt with “The Lighthouse.” Director Robert Eggers has opted to create his film in the 1.19:1 aspect ratio as opposed to what we usually see on the big screen today (1.85:1 or 2.39:1). In simpler, less mathematical terms, the image on the screen is nearly square as opposed to being quite rectangular. The effect, as noted, is to hem the viewer in. To place them squarely with the characters, each of whom takes up more screen real estate percentage-wise than they would in a more rectangular aspect ratio.
Although it initially may appear to be a bit of showmanship, the use of the aspect ratio works in perfect harmony with the tale Eggers is telling (written by himself and Max Eggers), one about two lighthouse keepers working their job, stuck together with no one else around, in New England in the 1890s. Starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, it is a story about isolation, close quarters, and madness. The two men did not know each other prior to their month-long stay at the lighthouse, and as each learns about the other, they are not happy with what they find.
The audience is not privy to the truth about either man, so we can do nothing more than take them at their word about their past… or refuse to do so. As the movie continues, it becomes all the more clear that each man has been keeping secrets; each has been holding back. The exact reasons for those omissions/lies, however, are up for debate.
Do you, as the audience member, believe this story or that story? Do you believe that Pattinson’s character is seeing what his character believes he is seeing? Why is he having the dreams he is having? What do they mean? The list of questions and decisions the audience has to make goes on and on.
One of the greatest feats Eggers manages with the film is revealing virtually nothing while keeping the audience entranced. The growing enmity between the two lighthouse keepers, with Dafoe’s senior member of the team bossing around Pattinson’s junior, is enough to keep the audience intrigued. And as for the truth, well… I’m not about to spoil what happens. Just know that the story involves the two men, seagulls, various sea creatures, a storm, and plenty of alcohol.
But throughout it all is that sense of claustrophobia. The two men live on an island, and it could be an island with beautiful vistas, but we’ll never know. When the storm comes in, while we are aware that it is powerful, the film is less concerned with depicting said power (although there are some shots of the weather) than it is with staying close in on the lighthouse keepers and the way the storm affects them. We stay with them, we become intrinsically involved in Pattinson’s paranoia, in Dafoe’s anger, in a quest to see these men off the island and to get off of it ourselves.
“The Lighthouse,” more than simply being shot in this older aspect ratio, is also in black and white, and the color scheme lends itself to the tale just as much as shape of the screen. It is an exceptionally dark movie, with many things obfuscated either partially or in their entirety. This further pushes the characters to the fore – we see them even if we don’t always see what’s around them. And then there’s the dialogue, which somehow further enhances this. Both actors speak with thick accents and some of the exact line readings are unclear, but what is perfectly clear is how they spit out the words or react when the words are spat to them. We don’t need to know the exact statement to know the precise sentiment.
I will not say that I know the truth of this film, that I know exactly what happens. I am not entirely convinced that there is a definitive version of the truth, one that takes into account every moment of the movie. What I do know is this – if “The Witch” didn’t convince you that Robert Eggers is a supremely talented filmmaker, “The Lighthouse” will.
photo credit: A24