In a year in which Parasite and Joker are both nominated for Best Picture, it’s clear that issues of class and our increasingly stratified, consumption-driven society — late capitalism as the internet calls it — are subjects that interest moviegoers. It’s a shame, then, that the Academy, and the critical discourse in general, have overlooked one of the year’s most intense examinations of drudgery and workplace power dynamics: Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse.
The follow-up to Eggers’ 17th-century religious horror film The Witch, The Lighthouse was similarly advertised as a horror film; the trailer, depicting two men plagued by madness and tentacles on a desolate New England shore, carried the pungent aroma of Lovecraft. And while madness and tentacles do abound, the real meat of The Lighthouse is in its workplace drama (to say nothing of its moments of hilarity).
Aside from a well-deserved Best Cinematography nomination for Jarin Blaschke, the Academy showed no love for Eggers’ brilliant, weird film.
Ancient setting, timeless themes
Set in 19th century New England, The Lighthouse follows two lighthouse keepers (wickies, to use the vernacular), Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), who arrive at a lonely outpost for a month-long assignment. Winslow is a rookie, having left a career in timber for unknown reasons, and Wake is a grizzled veteran.
The dynamic between them becomes apparently quickly, when Wake assigns Winslow all the grueling daytime labor, leaving himself the cozy post of watching the light at night. While Winslow shovels coal, drags fuel containers up stairs, and scrubs every surface clean, Wake sleeps the day away, spending his nights drinking by the light of the lens.
Wake reinforces his authority throughout the film, whether through peer pressure or simply pulling rank. During their first supper together, he pressures a reluctant Winslow to drink — emphasizing that it’s bad luck to leave a toast unfinished. When Winslow chafes at his duties, Wake warns him that he’ll dock his pay over any perceived insubordination.
It’s a reprimand that Wake repeats throughout the film, and no matter how angry he might be, it always chastens Winslow. The final indignity comes when he discovers Wake’s logbook, where the salty dog has been writing his reports to their employer, recommending they dock Winslow’s wages for various missteps.
A titanic performance
Dafoe deserves praise for his portrayal of Wake; he also deserved, at the very least, a Best Supporting Actor nomination. The fact that his performance couldn’t muster enough votes will go down as one of the Academy’s great mysteries.
Dafoe deserved, at the very least, a Best Supporting Actor nomination.
It’s a tempestuous performance, dripping with classic theatricality. Wake shifts from genial coworker to raging tyrant and back again, his weathered face clenching and unclenching mid-sentence. Dafoe does more with his craggy brow in this film than most actors do with their whole bodies.
His crowning moment is a show-stopping monologue here he invokes Neptune himself to smite Winslow after the younger man insinuates he doesn’t like his cooking (trapped by a storm and guzzling booze nonstop, the two are snappy). Wake rises up like a rogue wave, initially roaring as he calls to the sea gods. His voice simmers to a menacing snarl as he describes in florid detail the ways in which he wants them to grind Winslow into ever smaller particles.
Dafoe keeps his eyes locked on Pattinson, unblinking, the muscles around his eyes twitching with fury. All this in contrast to his watery eyes and pleading frown when he initially tries to get Winslow to praise his cooking.
A masterful script
The performance is remarkable not only for its physicality, but also for the excellent dialogue. In writing the screenplay, Eggers and his brother Max studied the works of writers like Sarah Orne Jewett, who interviewed sailors and farmers to capture the distinct rhythms and vocabulary of 19th century New Englanders.
Speaking to The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey, Eggers said “We wanted it to be in period-correct, coastal dialects … you don’t say ‘R’ on this word, but you add ‘R’ to ‘winder’ … you know, window, winder … So then we could make sure these seven things are correct with Rob’s [Pattinson] dialect and these 12 things with Willem’s …”
Wake speaks in the coarse slang of a drunken sailor, yet can muster Shakespearean grandiloquence during his monologue, and Dafoe moves between these modes gracefully. Pattinson, too, dances between emotional highs and lows, and it’s a testament to his skill that he doesn’t get overshadowed.
The Lighthouse is a film that is masterful in every respect: In the performances, in the audacious script, in the sinister gloom that pervades every shot. And despite its setting, it’s also a film that speaks to the present moment, a time in which power structures are becoming more stark and the world seems to stumble toward chaos.
The Academy may not have recognized The Lighthouse, but history ought to.
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