If making a black-and-white film in this age can be a make-or-break affair, successfully pulling off a black-and-white film with a 1:1 aspect ratio demands miraculous cinematic brilliance. The 2019 psychological horror film The Lighthouse, directed and co-written by Robert Eggers, achieves this brilliance, aided by extraordinary performances by its only two speaking actors – Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson.
Set in nineteenth-century Massachusetts, the film focuses on Thomas Wake (Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) – two lighthouse keepers who arrive at a lighthouse near New England and must tend to the place for four weeks till relief comes. Winslow is new at sea and Wake serves as his boss, ordering him around and crudely commenting on his job performance every now and then (“Contradict me again and I will dock your wages!”; “Swab, dog! Swab!”). Over the next few weeks, as the weather at sea becomes more tumultuous and dangerous, Wake and Winslow end up discovering some secrets about each other as well as the lighthouse. Soon, the audience learns that Eggers has created a world of unreliable protagonists, where mermaids and supernatural seagulls exist, where light from a lighthouse is hypnotic and hallucinogenic, where folklore has the power to come alive.
Convincingly conveying a story like this is tough as it is. A black-and-white film with a square aspect ratio makes it critically important for the actors to give impeccable performances because every single expression on their faces is all the more conspicuous and stark, especially because there are few other distractions on which to focus. Since The Lighthouse is set in nineteenth-century Massachusetts, it was also important that the lead actors speak in the right accent and anachronistic sailor language. Plus, the story is rooted in New England folk culture and superstitions of the sea folk, which may be unfamiliar to many audience members. Thus, the actors’ performances must unequivocally communicate the perils and the ‘truth’ of these superstitions in the film’s world. Finally, the film demands not only emotional evocation from the two actors, but also the physical depiction of old-timey lighthouse keepers – Dafoe had to deliver long dialogues with a cigar in his mouth, while Pattinson’s character had to perform a lot of physical work such as lugging bags of chalk, pushing barrows full of coal (sometimes on slippery slopes in the rain) and dragging oil drums up the stairs. This physicality clearly added to the list of things the actors had to get right for this film to work. Both Dafoe and Pattinson overcame all these challenges outstandingly, but without diminishing Pattinson’s excellence, I have to talk about Dafoe’s performance in a couple of crucial scenes in the film.
Throughout the film, Wake shares with Winslow the myths and superstitions of the sailor-folk – “Bad luck to leave a toast unfinished, lad!” or “Bad luck to kill a sea bird!”. When Winslow dismisses the latter superstition as “tall tales” in one scene, Wake hits him and repeats himself fiercely. His lips quiver and he trembles ever so slightly, almost admitting that he has himself experienced something supernatural in the past, that he knows more about the seabirds than he is letting on, that he may be harbouring many a scary secret. Since many of the scenes in The Lighthouse, including this one, are interior shots covering the discussions the two characters have over dinner, sources of natural light are minimal to none. Therefore, to depict the intensity of dialogue, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (nominated for this film at the 92nd Academy Awards) had to take close-up shots of the actors’ faces. So, it is all the more impressive that Dafoe powerfully conveys so many ideas in a matter of a couple of seconds in this scene. One might even say that it is Dafoe’s performance in this scene that firmly establishes the demonic powers of the lighthouse’s seagulls which, arguably, are important characters in themselves.
Another powerful scene which showcases Dafoe’s skills as an actor is when Wake and Winslow get drunk after they realize that they missed the tender that was to take them back from the lighthouse. In a drunken jabber, Winslow confesses to Wake how tired he is of the latter’s cooking. An equally drunk Wake seems to be genuinely hurt by this confession and desperately wants Winslow to say that he loved his “lobster”. It is clear in that moment, conveyed powerfully through Dafoe’s expressive face alone, that his anger was not only about the lobster. Winslow’s confession meant more to him. Perhaps it meant that he could not trust Winslow anymore, that his companion was lying about other things too, that he was concealing some important details about his life. In his anger, Wake ‘curses’ Winslow to an unceremonious death (which proves to be an important prediction later) in a rather wordy dialogue. Here, Dafoe’s acting makes the audience feel as if he is possessed by the spirits of sailors whose superstitions he talks about. He maintains an intimidating posture with eyes wide open throughout the scene to bring out an unwavering dramatic effect. Such is Dafoe’s skill that his hands can still be seen shaking with wrath moments after he has ‘cursed’ Winslow in this scene.
The effectiveness of Dafoe’s performance can be better judged if we imagine it as being distinct and detached from the other elements of the mise en scène. If we take out the black-and-white screen, the lighting, the camera angles, and even the story thus far – if we visualize these two scenes as independent pieces of work – they will still be able to create exactly the same aura of fear. In scenes such as these, Dafoe mesmerises his audience much like the lighthouse’s light hypnotizes its beholder, rendering a performance that shines through this literally and figuratively dark film.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.