Writer-director Robert Eggers, who previously wowed us with The Lighthouse, returns in style with a brutal, bloody Viking epic, based on Amleth, the figure in Scandinavian legend that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s the first of his films to see a wide, mainstream release and large-scale ad campaign to match, and it’s perhaps for that reason that it is in some sense less demanding that its audience put the work in to understand and interpret it – although there remains plenty of room for that, and it’s in a different league to the blockbusters with which it’s competing. It’s a film to put down what you’re doing right now and see at the cinema – it’s vicious, atmospheric, and beautifully shot, and you won’t regret seeing it where it’s meant to be seen.
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)
Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, a tale of two lighthouse keepers stranded during a storm, is a visual treat in black and white that stuns and engrosses us. A two-hander between Willem Dafoe’s irascible boss and Robert Pattinson’s secretive youngster, it invokes myth, gods, folk tales, the clash of male egos, compulsive psychosexuality, if not much, much more besides.
If its plot is simple, its story is complex, and we think our way through its characters’ personalities, wants, needs, and psychologies. José asks if the film is gothic, and we discuss the boss’s treatment of his assistant: is it just controlling, or abusive? Extraordinary imagery of mermaids, monsters, and gods suffuses the film with inescapable surreality and the turbulent minds of men overburdened with ego and sexual need. Eggers has an assured, confident sense of tone, layering the film with mood and atmosphere, making its remote island a pressure cooker.
The Lighthouse is a spectacular film, an audiovisual treat that you should not miss at the cinema. Its imagery is poetic, its characters complex – in its entirety, it is confusing but approachable, symbolic but not coded, allowing room for interpretation and emotional response. It’s brilliant.