Robert Eggers’ new film portrays a pas de deux between two lighthouse keepers in isolation. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) seem alone, but there’s a third partner to their dance. And that is nature. Nature that it depicts in mysterious black and white. It’s been two months since I’ve seen a black and white film, a criminally long time. Most of the films with that color scheme portray bustling metropolises, but here those shades depict the exact opposite. Here, the water seems, at first, both plastic and inviting, where the rough surfaces indicate that we are at the edge of civilization.
I’ve been watching a lot of Indigenous films lately, films that view nature as a thing that people should preserve. The Lighthouse, on the other hand, shows a hostile relationship between people and nature. That is, at least, Ephraim’s perspective, a young and careless man. He throws rocks and does worse things to animals like the seagulls who are stopping him from doing his long list of daily duties. Thomas learns of how he treats the gulls and yells at him for it. Thomas warns of the consequences of such hostility but it falls on deaf ears, mostly because he’s not a good teacher.
A good teacher would say, for one, the way and the how instead of the what, but Thomas only does the latter. He would tease Ephraim for not drinking alcohol. He would let Ephraim do things like drink bad water or carry a vat of gasoline up several flights of a spiral staircase. And then he tells Ephraim that those actions are mistakes. There are places that he doesn’t allow Ephraim to go. Even in isolation, their relationship is indicative of a society where older generations don’t let their future versions prosper, learn, and be their better selves.
Eggers gives this natural and generational tragedy a theatrical canvas. It’s a major accomplishment of both sight and sound. He makes us hear the foghorn, a sound that Ephraim will never ignore as part of his routine. This job seems more permanent than the four week duration that Thomas initially promised him. Eggers also makes us feel, through the two senses in his disposal, the winds that Ephraim have to face on a daily basis. This says so much about working conditions in the past. The waters, which, again, seems inviting at first, become more hostile when a storm brews.
Again, Eggers shows us that nothing is in isolation. That’s either because of how one’s mental states and perceptions never leave a person, or because a place’s fantastical elements intrude on that solitary person. While working a night watch, Ephraim encounters a mermaid (Valeriia Karaman). Her status as a real being is debatable, but she’s real enough for Ephraim to have a sexual relationship with. Eggers’ character design speaks volumes her, even her pointed nails reflect the weaponized femininity that Ephraim and most men both fear and fetishize. There might also be another reason why, arguably, Ephraim conjures her up.
And that’s because Ephraim would rather be with a mermaid than to act on his feelings for Thomas. Eggers follows a tradition of prestige cinema of the 21st century. Most films nowadays still view queerness within environments of past isolation as well as that sexuality in repression. That framework and the audience conversation I anticipate about it is slightly irritating. But there are a few reasons why I’m excusing the parameters of its depiction of sexuality. The craftsmanship here is still outstanding, especially in a way it interprets larger social trends in this loose adaptation of a tragedy between two real life men.