The Lighthouse is a movie worth listening to
Robert Eggers' follow-up to The Witch is the best-sounding film in recent memory
More than it is salt and sea monsters, kelp and foam, the ocean is fury and it is noise. It roars, crashes, rumbles, groans, howls, booms, hisses, spits, and seethes. Sometimes, when you are lonely and cold, and there is no one else around, it might even seem to sing to you in the screeching pitch of a siren.
The Lighthouse, out Friday, is like the ocean: It is mad and threatening noise. It is a lot of other things too — vomit, rot, kerosene, semen, stone, lobster, rain, bedpans, glass — but above all, it is an achievement of sound. Critics often praise films by telling audiences to "see it big"; in the case of The Lighthouse, listen to it as loud as you possibly can.
At least, if you can bear it. Robert Eggers' highly-anticipated follow-up to The Witch, The Lighthouse likewise draws its water from the well of creepy early Americana (although the script is very loosely based on a Welsh true story, insanity born of isolation is a common New England maritime theme). In the last decade of the 19th century, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) takes a four-week job as a "wickie," tending to a remote and dilapidated lighthouse on an unfriendly hulk of rock in the Atlantic under the apprenticeship of its longtime keeper, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe). But the sea has a funny way of playing games with your mind, and in an outburst, Ephraim kills a seagull in spite of the superstition that the birds are the reincarnated souls of drowned sailors. It isn't clear if this is the moment the men's fortunes turn, or if their doom was always waiting for them beneath the surface like an undertow, but a storm soon settles on the island and they are unable to make their expected departure. The situation deteriorates; Pattinson has described filming the latter half of the movie as some of the most "revolting" work he's ever done.
We are introduced to this — what to call it? Island? Realm? Purgatory? — initially only through sound. The Lighthouse's opening shot is an intentionally disorienting slow materialization through thick north Atlantic fog; a long blast, repeated, is haltingly identified as a foghorn. The next shot: the bow of a boat blading noisily, almost violently, through the chop. Despite the set having been constructed specifically for the movie, the floorboards of the keepers' home creak loudly underfoot, a sound familiar to anyone who has ever had to contest with the way wood swells and shrinks in ocean spray. Seagulls are an incessant Greek chorus, building the atmosphere of dread. And all the while, the foghorn never really goes away; it continues to blare a steady, maddening warning in the background.
Sometimes it can almost be difficult to distinguish what is in-world cacophony from what is actually part of the film's score. With The Lighthouse, Eggers reteamed with The Witch composer Mark Korven, who was tasked with constructing the island's haunting soundscape. Strings chatter like dolphins, bellow like deep-sea leviathans, and wail like the onset of a nor'easter. "Robert [Eggers] and I were rather like the two wickies that went insane in The Lighthouse, musically speaking," Korven explained in a statement. Eggers has also spoken in interviews about resisting the urge to go overboard with the score; at one point in the process, the music had been unfavorably compared to the sound of "a Yeti moaning." In contrast to the otherwise rough and tortured score, though, the crystalline glass harmonica associated with the light itself sounds hypnotically pure and alluring. You come to understand, almost through the sound alone, why Thomas lovingly refers to it as she.
While Korven's atonal score is a memorable stand-out, in truth not much is needed beyond the field recordings. The Lighthouse will inevitably draw comparisons to The Shining and Moby-Dick due to its themes and setting, but it is better compared to 2012's Leviathan, an immersive fishing documentary produced by Harvard's Sensory Ethnography Lab. Sound designer Damian Volpe devoted himself to The Lighthouse's absurd authenticity with painstaking recreations: "Volpe, for instance, not only dug a grave to see what it would sound like to shovel dirt back into it, he was equally uncompromising when Eggers wasn't satisfied late in the mix with the sound of lobster traps being dragged," the Los Angeles Times reports. "The designer and his wife went out to a lobster area on their weekend and sent the director photos that showed both of them dragging traps and recording to get that elusive sound right." Added Eggers in an interview with Vulture, "The wind is not exaggerated in the film. Even if I was a yard from you, I might not be able to hear you against the wind."
Even Pattinson and Dafoe's voices contribute to the strange, sonic universe of The Lighthouse. Their accents and rhythms of speech seem pulled straight out of Herman Melville, and are almost jarring until you get used to the period-appropriate language. Pattinson, a Brit, has described studying "different Maine lobster fisherman accents" to get the cadence just right, observing to Deadline "if you just make one vowel mistake then you suddenly are doing a different accent." Dafoe's voice in particular stands out, when he caws commands at his helper or spits the words of a sea shanty during a drunken, raving, wild dance. He often repeats himself ("doldrums, doldrums"), transforming his voice into a kind of animal chatter, but can also boom with clear-eyed rage, like a beached Poseidon or the nautical devil Davy Jones. "Not enough quiet for ye up north?" he taunts Pattinson's character at one point; he's intuited there is more to Ephraim's past, yes, but it's also a wink at the audience. It sure isn't quiet down here.
But bluster is sometimes just that: a storm with nothing at its center. The Lighthouse is best appreciated as an experience, a kind of consuming sensory overload. It doesn't matter, exactly, if plot is ultimately just sound and fury — I've struggled to encapsulate the movie beyond calling it "totally bonkers," and I'm not entirely sure that's a good thing — but it is admirably obsessive and dedicated to creating its world. You might never want to hear the sound of waves again after The Lighthouse is through with you, but for those 110 minutes, it will drown you in sound.
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.