Updated: Apr 2, 2020
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Lighthouse keepers are the young assistant, Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) and the old salt Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe).
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Blu-ray and Digital copy; 2019, R for sexual content, nudity, violence, disturbing images, and some profanity; streaming via Amazon Prime, Apple, FandangoNOW, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu
Best extra: Commentary by co-writer and director Robert Eggers
WATCHING Robert and Max Eggers’ (“The Witch”) ultra-dark, ultra-claustrophobic, relentlessly grim “The Lighthouse” may have viewers hankering for a shot of strong booze. If none is available, let’s hope the turpentine is well hidden. Because that’s what the two doomed lighthouse-keepers, played to the hilt by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, resort to when they run out of whatever grain alcohol they’ve been guzzling to pass the stir-crazy time.
“The Lighthouse” is a bit like an accident: You can’t look away from it, even though you know it’s going to bring you down. And that irresistibility is certainly due to the commitment and conviction of the brothers Eggers, who decided they wanted to make a “ghost story set in a lighthouse” and, thanks to meticulous research and protean effort, they brought it to the screen. The Eggers’ were inspired by a true story about two 19th century Welsh “wickies,” as lighthouse keepers were known, both named Thomas, who were stranded in a storm.
The film’s plot centers on an old salt, Thomas Wake (Dafoe), and his newly arrived young assistant, Thomas Howard (Pattinson), stuck in a decrepit lighthouse together on an extremely inhospitable remote island. Wake is a slovenly, crusty taskmaster, who works the young newcomer like a slave. Howard has no choice but to reply, “Aye, sir,” to all Wake’s rigorous commands because his paycheck depends on it, but also in hopes he will one day get to work the light. Wake soon makes clear that he’s the only one with that privilege, which leads Howard to suspect the light contains a fearful mystery. As the days pass, the storms rage and more alcohol is consumed. Howard begins to have terrifying nightmares, which soon become confused with reality. Where one ends and the other begins is up to the audience to determine.
(1) Thomas Howard arrives on the remote island to begin his stint at the lighthouse. (2) The two Thomases haul Howard's luggage from the tender. (3) Howard begins his arduous tasks. (4) Wake, inside the lighthouse's Fresnel lens.
This Lionsgate Blu-ray was sourced from a 4K master. Surprisingly, it didn't get 4K release. Using antique 35mm camera equipment, the film is shot in an old school square frame (1:19:1 aspect ratio), which automatically exacerbates the sense of tight space inside the lighthouse. Filmed in black and white, natural film grain shows from start to finish. Using vintage lenses from the early 1900s and the 1930s, even outdoor scenes suggest a sense of the characters being trapped – surrounded as they are by perilous rough seas and swarms of seagulls.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is excellent, especially in delivering Mark Korven's ominous score, realistic sound effects and clear dialogue. That said, it’s advisable to use the available subtitles to understand what Dafoe and Pattinson are saying. Each speaks with a very strong accent, and their speech contains antiquated 19th-century usage in two different dialects.
Bonus features include several deleted scenes and an excellent multi-part making-of documentary. For those who watch the movie and aren’t sure if they love or hate it, I recommend Robert Egger’s commentary. It’s quite thoughtful and reveals a lot about what he and his brother were going for. He admits to the occasional disappointment in a scene or a shot, shares plenty of fun trivia, and describes how some effects were achieved. He begins with the typeface of the opening titles, which were borrowed from a 19th-century book’s title page. He says everything in the film had to be built, including the 70-foot lighthouse, erected on a spit on the southern tip of Nova Scotia.
(1) Howard's work made more miserable with the island's extreme weather. (2&3) Wake lowers Howard down on a pulley so he can whitewash the lighthouse. (4) One of many clashes between Wake and Howard.
One of the lenses used in the film is called a “Petzval” invented in 1840, and which Eggers says gives the picture an air of mystery. The black and white 35mm XX film stock required a huge amount of light, so a scene with an oil lamp or a shot of the lighthouse light required high-wattage halogen bulbs. As a result, crew members needed sunglasses at night, and the actors often couldn’t see each other’s faces across a table. The orthochromatic film stock made anything red (like blood) appear black, and light blue (sky) look white. Eggers talks about the seagulls in the film, a combination of actual wild birds, puppets, and a few trained ones.
Roger and Max came up with the movie’s dialogue by looking to books by Melville, Coleridge and Stevenson, but particularly by a 19th-century American writer named Sarah Orne Jewett. She interviewed sea captains and farmers and used phonetic interpretations of their dialects in her novels. Pattinson studied the accents of Maine farmers and Dafoe listened to native Nova Scotians. Regarding casting, Eggers says that Dafoe had always been one of his heroes. The actor had seen “The Witch” and had his management team contact the Eggers’ about wanting to work with them.
Pattinson was very picky about his projects, and let it be known he was only interested in doing “challenging, strange stuff.” Eggers sent him the script and asked, “Is this strange enough for you?” He says he thinks this is Pattinson’s finest performance to date, given how much is required of him in the film. The director praises both actors as being “tough cookies – up for anything.” He ends by expressing his astonishment and gratitude for the opportunity and “incredible creative freedom” to make “The Lighthouse” the way he and his brother conceived it.
— Peggy Earle
(1-3) Howard finds (or hallucinates) a beautiful, scary mermaid (Valeriia Karaman) on the rocks. (4) He runs off in terror, after her unearthly shriek.
(1) Wake on a drunken rant. (2) Howard threatens Wake with a kitchen knife. (3) And later gets his grisly revenge. (4) Howard confronts the mystery of the light.