Robert Eggers, responsible for the Witch, what I would argue was one of the least cliched and rawest mainstream horror films in recent memory, directed the black-and-white, square aspect ratio film, The Lighthouse in 2019.
I had been looking forward to this film after enjoying the Witch. Being in Taiwan, getting access to this film was slower than it would have been in an English speaking country, but was still ever so worthwhile waiting two additional years.
The first aspect that is striking is the aspect-ratio and colors themselves, all a product of the fact that this film was shot on 35mm orthochromatic black and white film with a 100 years old lens and a more or less fixed aperture.
The result was initially jarring, though just for the blink of an eye, and make me consider why we currently use widescreen, possibly to match the human visual frame with our two eyes…
Still, perhaps because of nostalgia for old classics or perhaps because of its inherent quality, the format felt both natural and soothing.
Other reviews referred to endless scenes of tedium and little dialogue, so I expected the possibility that this might be a difficult art piece. It was not.
The long scenes always contained forward-moving action, and the lack of dialogue, considering their accents, not only indicative of the characters’ isolation but was preferred.
The story’s timeline is set clearly at the beginning, at four weeks. This short period also sets the expectation that no insanity, nor depraved acts could take place in what is essentially a long vacation. The period is so clear and fixed that one assumes there could be no breakdown.
But the grinding isolation also makes them more susceptible to the superstition, which rears its head early with the mermaid and Protean imagery, fitting the Bristolian sounding rough New England accents, and rough seas.
We aired the film here in one of the most southernmost points in Kaohsiung, 30m from the sea, in the midst of an endless cascade of three consecutive typhoons and that are accompanying, with pouring rain and gusting outside serving as the backdrop.
Visually, often films use color to drive focus, or if not, white space. Much of this film, though, takes place in dark rooms, or at night. It is in dreams, or wakefulness, secrets and deeply covered places, as the thematic center of the movie is that lighthouse itself, the perpetual illumination in the darkness.
This film, instead focuses on the black space, of which there is often much more. The shadows and the rain frame the visual landscape with its boundaries, and the ominous omnipresence of the impenetrable seas and their infinite allure.
The fixed and lowish aperture also means that the depth of field is narrow, and thus unlike a typical Adam Sandlereque movie where everything is in focus, what is left in focus here is deliberate and sharp on what is directed.
Moreover, the visible elements of the film also seem to be carefully selected, with the shapes of objects and indeed the shapes of rooms and how they are filmed setting up how one perceives each space.
As time passes, the unreality begins to set in, as does the mystery and suspicion of the as yet unnamed senior man.
The initially limited and short time frame dilutes the tension, but as their service drags on, certain elements rupture the peace. The stolen knife is a symbol for the break, and their slowly building alcoholism try their coexistence, even as they appear to take on a kind of camaraderie, even approaching a father-son relationship.
Suffice it to say that by the end, it is no longer clear what is real or delusion, what is a figment of Wakes’ or of Howard’s imagination, and whether one or both have lost their minds, or whether there is some true power to that light.
The light to them is more than a symbol of their purpose, one large and integral enough that their lives and the resources of the US government would be directed to keeping them so far away from civilization at this post.
It represents not only the illumination truth of who they both are, but the power of man to create light to illuminate what nature and god have left dark
With it, there is potential to conquer the desolate and dangerous corners of the earth, and to prevent death itself. This power proves too much for either of the two men.
Perhaps because of expectations of a slow grinding movie, or perhaps because of the uniqueness of a film whose plot and direction are so unlike any other produced in recent years, the novelty and depth of feelings provoked by its sheer wrought darkness, stylistically, visually, and in content, make this film hard to criticize.
Rating: Two halves of a broken mermaid