Tag Archives: Bait

‘Drowning in Spilled Beans: The Method Behind the Madness in The Lighthouse’ — A Video Essay by Joel Hatton



Drowning in Spilled Beans: The Method Behind the Madness in The Lighthouse


Immediately after my initial viewing of The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019), I was certain it was going to enter the catalogue of my personal favourite films. However, while some of the merits of the film are immediately obvious, specifically the sensational performances and stunning cinematography, it was a decidedly difficult task to discern how the film was able to instil such a deep feeling of fear and dread. The narrative follows a character going mad, but the mere depiction of insanity is not altogether unusual. There is a multitude of films that deal with the topic of madness, but few of them can replicate the creeping unease Eggers creates in the world of The Lighthouse. Upon delving through the footage, it quickly becomes apparent that the film’s strength as a psychological character study lies not just in what it shows, but rather how it shows it.

A film that quickly became a key point for comparison was The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). The similarities between the two films are numerous and well documented – from thematic narrative links (such as the common idea of madness emanating from isolation) to visual links (such as the image of someone running away from an axe wielding maniac). However, a link less touched upon is the unusual use of form to convey madness. The Shining provides one of the most famous examples of the 180-degree rule being broken, during the interaction between the protagonist and a spectral waiter. The invisible plane in a scene that the camera never crosses is a rule adhered to by the overwhelming majority of modern films, and thus the breaking of it has to be considered both intentional and significant. In this scene it serves the function of disorienting the audience, the unusual and unexpected angle clearly conveying to the audience that something is amiss. Even if an audience member is not consciously aware of the rule, the idea is so deeply ingrained in standard editing and cinematography that the breaking of it will have a subconscious effect. While this idea is not directly replicated in The Lighthouse, there are multiple occasions where Eggers seems to toy with our assumptions regarding film editing and structure to create a similar effect.

The essay divides its points into two main categories; those related to the overall visual style of the film and those that are related to the use of perspective, both visually and narratively, with both sections touching upon the idea of subverting traditional cinematic conventions (based on a mixture of personal observations and the idea of continuity editing outlined by David Bordwell) in order to make the audience feel disconcerted. The first section was a critical inclusion simply because the visual style of The Lighthouse is so remarkably striking. The bold choice to shoot in monochrome as well as a seldom used 1.19:1 aspect ratio dominates the aesthetic experience of the film.

Bait (Mark Jenkin, 2019) became a key point for comparison in this regard due to being another recent film that is shot in black and white while utilising an unconventional aspect ratio (4:3). In Bait, it seems clear that this was to cement the idea of time in the film’s presentation since the narrative heavily focuses on the conflict between modernity and tradition. It would be easy to come to a similar conclusion for The Lighthouse, since implementing unusual techniques in order to establish a historical setting is clearly something Eggers is not opposed to, based on his use of accurate historical dialogue in both of his feature films. He frequently uses primary historical sources in order to craft authentic dialogue, such as the diary of Cotton Mather (a key figure in the Salem witch trials) for The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015) and old nautical dictionaries for The Lighthouse.

Despite these compelling reasons for labelling the incorporation of these choices as an effort to accentuate the setting, there is reason to believe they serve another purpose by revealing details on Winslow’s feelings and state of mind. Firstly, there is the ambiguity brought on by the lack of colour and the claustrophobia aroused by the narrow frame, both of which serve as visual manifestations of Winslow’s mental struggle. Secondly, the fact the frame differs from the norm means it works to play with our assumptions, since we are used to having a much wider field of view. In The Lighthouse, this area of the frame is still vital in communicating meaning, precisely because we are accustomed to it being utilised. It is not empty space, but rather hidden space, an area that we would usually expect to be visible completely concealed by impenetrable black walls.

The second section focuses on perspective, namely how we are set up in alignment with Winslow and how the events that unfold are rendered much more affecting because of this alignment. The fact we follow him almost exclusively, combined with the cinematography used, results in a certain level of trust and sympathy from us as viewers. This works to create a great sense of unease when this character betrays this trust by acting in a deranged manner or making a surprising confession about his shady past (made all the worse by the fact images shown to us in his sexual fantasies appear to contradict his claim of innocence). Moreover, as the film progresses there a several instances where Winslow’s perception regarding the passage of time is brought into question. After previously setting us up in a position where we experience time as he does (cutting to black when he is rendered unconscious etc.) this revelation that large chunks of time may be missing from the narrative is highly distressing. Overall, this results in putting the audience in the uncomfortable position of being closely tethered to a man whose background, motives and state of mind have all been exposed as highly questionable.

In conclusion, this essay aims to shed some light on some overlooked elements of The Lighthouse and establish why those aspects work to make the film an effective psychological horror.



Bordwell, D. (2002). Intensified continuity visual style in contemporary American film. Film Quarterly, 55(3), 16-28.

Bordwell, D., Thompson, K., & Smith, J. (1993). Film art: An introduction (Vol. 7). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Haughton A. The Historical Accuracies of The Witch Part 3 (Dialogue) (2017) https://www.viddy-well.com/articles/the-historical-accuracies-of-the-witch-part3

Fleming, M. Z., Piedmont, R. L., & Hiam, C. M. (1990). Images of madness: Feature films in teaching psychology. Teaching of psychology, 17(3)

Magliano, J. P., Miller, J., & Zwaan, R. A. (2001). Indexing space and time in film understanding. Applied Cognitive Psychology: The Official Journal of the Society for Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 15(5), 533-545.

Magliano, J. P., & Zacks, J. M. (2011). The impact of continuity editing in narrative film on event segmentation. Cognitive science, 35(8), 1489-1517.

Robinson T. ‘It was a learning curve for everyone’: Robert Eggers on The Lighthouse’s tech experiments (2019) https://www.theverge.com/2019/10/18/20921056/the-lighthouse-robert-eggers-director-interview-behind-the-scenes-robert-pattinson-willem-dafoe


The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)

Community S2E20 (Tristram Shapeero, 2011)

American Psycho (Mary Harron, 2000)

The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019)

Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)

Midsommar (Ari Aster, 2019)

Bait (Mark Jenkin, 2019)

The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2015)

One Week (Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline, 1920)

Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)

Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018)

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)


Eavesdropping at the Movies: 188 – Bait

Shot in black and white on a clockwork camera from the 1970s, the hand-development of its 16mm film resulting in scratches and unpredictable changes in exposure, and its soundtrack entirely post-synchronised, Mark Jenkin’s Bait is audiovisually suffused with atmosphere and texture, and not a little dreamlike and weird to boot. It tells the story of Martin, a Cornish fisherman struggling to cope with the upheaval of both his region and his life specifically that results from an influx of middle-class settlers. He’s sold his family’s cottage to a family of outsiders, his brother now uses his fishing boat to take tourists on drunken stag parties, and Martin snarls and growls his way through dealing with these changes.

It’s clear that we’re meant to see Martin as a hero, but he’s tilting at windmills – though perhaps that’s WHY he’s a hero – and José argues that the film is deeply conservative, asking, for instance, why it’s so bad that Martin’s brother adapts to his changing environment by taking tourists on trips. Mike argues that the family of newcomers is too caricatured, so keen is the film for us to see them as invaders who fuck everything up, and thinks about the film’s parochialism in the wider context of Brexit – the unfriendliness to outsiders displayed here speaks to anti-immigrant sentiment throughout the UK; is there a difference between the way the Cornish in Bait feel and the way Brexiters throughout the country feel? Perhaps there’s a tension between the relative power and privilege of the “invaders” and “invaded” that we don’t resolve, but in overly simplistic terms we don’t emerge from the film feeling entirely on its side.

Jenkin’s cinematography and editing beautifully conveys what there is to love about Martin’s way of life, concentrating on manual labour and his close-knit community. José suggests that the film looking the way it does makes it feel as though it’s already an object from the past, with the romance, nostalgia and loss that goes along with it – just as it depicts the decline of its way of life. It also puts us in mind of Italian Neorealism, José bringing up Visconti’s La terra trema, Mike thinking of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, and we’re indebted to Mark Fuller for offering a perspective on Bait‘s place within a tradition of similarly claustrophobic coastal dramas, such as Gremillon’s The Lighthouse Keepers, Epstein’s Finis Terrae, Flaherty’s Man of Aran, and Powell’s Edge of the World. Mike also considers the film’s visual and tonal similarity to Aronofsky’s Pi, thinking about how effectively that film places the audience in the main character’s headspace, and suggesting that the visual design here does the same.

Bait is a considerable film, one that speaks deeply to the loss of a certain way of life and the anger and resentment to which that leads. But the film doesn’t appear keen for this resentment to be questioned, and we feel it needs to be.

The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.

With José Arroyo of First Impressions and Michael Glass of Writing About Film.