When the lights go down and the movie starts, it’s impossible not to feel captivated by the two black bars bordering the left and right of Robert Eggers’ new film The Lighthouse. For modern viewers used to the 4:3 of television and computer monitors, the 1.43:1 of IMAX cameras, and perhaps an occasional widescreen (depending on their familiarity with Quentin Tarantino or Lord of the Rings Blu-rays), the stark 1.19:1 aspect ratio of The Lighthouse might feel a fearful revelation. And indeed, the jagged 35mm black-and-white cinematography makes the film one of the most visually striking of 2019. But to many, those black bars will be either a delight, a prison, or a distraction.
The bars will be a delight for film lovers and historians for whom the ratio inspires memories of cinema’s adolescence; memories of Movietone and M (1931), of an art form in spastic transition from silence to sound in the twenties and thirties. Conscious of communion with these interwar classics, Eggers mimics many visual motifs and techniques of Sternberg, Lang, and Clair. Rigorous symmetry, geometric camera movements, frames tyrannized by impenetrable negative space. The antiqueness of the aspect ratio begs easy comparisons to even earlier silent films, particularly the somnambulant phantasms of the German Expressionists. Stories are told of shadows and light beams physically painted onto the sets of these Weimar nightmares by Murnau, Wiene, Wegener, and indeed many scenes in The Lighthouse look like Eggers covered his sets and actors with black pitch. Visually, the film is more than an evocation of earlier cinema, it’s a shamanic trance in direct communication with it.
For others, the bars will be a prison, physically squeezing the frame together in a vice, heightening the claustrophobia of Eggers’ story. The film follows two nineteenth century “wickies”—or “lighthouse keepers” for you landlubbers—who arrive on a desolate island in the Atlantic for a four-week shift and slowly succumb to madness. The eldest, the irascible Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), is a life-long sea dog retired from sailing after a terrible leg injury. Well-versed in all the magics and superstitions of the trade—never leave a toast unfinished, never kill a sea bird—he hordes the nighttime for himself, locking himself in the lantern room every evening to keep his midnight watch. The youngest, newcomer and inveterate drifter Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), chafes under Wake’s tyranny and, eventually, the inescapable isolation of his post. After discovering a mermaid charm in his mattress upon first arriving, he starts having intensely sexual hallucinations of scaly sirens, slippery tentacles, and a man he may or may not have killed in his last job logging in British Columbia. These visions eat away at his mind until they draw Thomas in as well, plunging them into a love-hate foil à deux, cursing and attacking each other one moment then caterwauling together dead drunk the next. When a hurricane prevents their shift relief from reaching them at the end of their month, Thomas and Ephraim fall into a murderous fever dream where their identities, sexualities, and neuroses intertwine and self-destruct.
But others will identity the bars for what they truly are—a distraction that tricks the audience into thinking they’re watching something deeper, more clever, and more frightening then they really are. The 1.19:1 aspect ratio gives The Lighthouse the weight and import of “serious art,” that most infuriating subsection of cinema where charlatans mask their shortcomings as artists with ponderous appeals to intellectual esotericism. Put simply, the film isn’t bad, we just didn’t get it, man! And there is a lot to not get. After a scintillatingly austere first hour of perfectly paced, immaculately acted and shot filmmaking, the whole endeavor collapses under the weight of Eggers’ go-nowhere symbolism and meaningless mythological references. Ephraim gets equated alternatively with Sisyphus and Prometheus (to what end?), Captain Ahab gets name-dropped (wasn’t that book an out-of-print flop in that century?), and a plot point from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner takes center stage more than once (though it gets almost completely forgotten after the first act). Ephraim’s visions, at first sparse and disturbing, become campy and ridiculous, climaxing (pun not intended) with a ridiculous scene of him having sex with a mermaid version of Thomas that might’ve worked in a differently toned film but not in this one. Near the end when one character walks the other around the island on a leash like a dog, we don’t feel afraid or disturbed but hysterically incredulous. Even the performances eventually fall apart—Dafoe transmogrifies into a Looney Tunes character and Pattison modulates through half a dozen different accents, sometimes in the space of a single scene. Eggers’s madness has too little method behind it; it might captivate some purely for its weirdness, but it stands little chance of standing the test of time.