Saw this tonight at the Brattle in Cambridge, MA with Eggers doing a Q&A afterwards. Similar to The Witch
in many respects, particularly the aesthetic, with New England spooky folklore, visualized psychological consequences of isolation, and meticulously studied difficult accents all present. Pattinson and Dafoe are responsible for a lot of what works here, each getting plenty of opportunities to shine singularly and together, chewing scenery yet remaining reserved through enough of the film to stay true to their respective characters and refrain from going full ham. On the technical side, the score and especially the sound design are absolutely masterful, and the combination is a character just as significant as the actors themselves. Eggers shoots this in the claustrophobic aspect ratio of 1.19:1, and makes the most of his space (it’s no surprise, as he said in the Q&A, that every shot was rehearsed perfectly for blocking). The movie is pretty much what one will probably expect going in, but there are a few creative, disorienting, and unexpectedly terrifying mixtures of images and sounds that prove this to be a step up from The Witch
in editing skills and experience, if nothing else.
Two standout sequences:
There is a rapidly spliced collage of imagery mid-film that is disturbing to the senses - particularly the ears with the sounds gnawing on my eardrums - that the experience was near nausea-inducing. I mean that as a compliment, and after a very slow-building first half, the sequence carried even more power in its abandonment of the expected pace and sudden abrasive delivery of psychological dread.
The most wonderful moment in the film, though, comes at the very end with Pattinson finally coming to contact with the light in the lighthouse (his God). It is one of the most effectively horrifying moments of complete psychological destruction I’ve experienced from the medium, again due primarily to the use of sound, and the way it's shot echoes Lynch's grating use of sound design on the image in Twin Peaks: The Return.
Overall I liked this a lot, and though it felt like it was trying to exude more substance than it actually had at times, the film is at its best when it surrenders the reach for higher purpose to focus on the powerful possibilities of the medium at provoking the visual, auditory, and psychological senses simultaneously. It demands to be seen in theaters and will probably lose much of its power on the smaller screen. Eggers talked about trying to make a film about “identity, devolving into the obscure,” which is a vague but apt description of the clarity of the ideas at play. I would also call the film a hybrid of a darkly comic and less poignant Waiting for Godot
(shifting power dynamics and all), and watching someone else’s nightmare through vicarious depersonalization.
As for the Q&A, Eggers talked about the intense work put into getting the film made from early construction of the script, to advocating to his funders to be able to shoot in black and white and in his desired aspect ratio (which was very difficult apparently, especially considering that these conditions made the film unmarketable to several countries overseas), to the shoot (horrible weather, cold, unpleasant, old filming equipment breaking down, no fond memories to share - though apparently Willem Dafoe is turned up to 11 constantly and chooses to rehearse with gusto on repeat, even when told not to). One of the more interesting and eerie self-reflexive realizations Eggers pointed out is how Dafoe was so confident and comfortable while Pattinson was very
uncomfortable throughout the shoot, which, considering the roles each play within the film (plus it’s Dafoe’s character’s lighthouse, Pattinson is the visitor) fits quite perfectly with what we get onscreen.
Eggers also talked about the detailed research he and his brother did to ensure the accents matched accurate reports of people who lived in these places at these times (Dafoe and Pattinson have very different accents), and writing the script with the accents rather than translating them (so writing while learning the language). Eggers and his team also constructed their own sets including the 70 ft lighthouse we see in the film. He wrote the script while listening to the sounds and score we hear in the film (which I suppose isn’t particularly novel, but clearly helped create the a chaotic vibe we get), and wanted the noises to emulate New England weather and the creepy historical ghostly natures of the architecture and spaces that exist here. For those interested, while he had quite a number of folk tale influences, the main story that inspired this film was Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy