I am a sucker for a well-written adaptation. Believe me. Taking a beloved intellectual property and making it new and different is no small feat. I’d rant about the brilliance of this, that and the other film, but I’d be here all day. Suffice it to say, it’s difficult, but when it’s good, you know it’s good.
When a screenplay can take something universally known as a myth and still achieve what it’s trying to do, that’s when you’ve got something really good on your hands. Films such as ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ after Euripides, or Joel and Ethan Coen’s ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ which… inhabited the spirit of ‘The Odyssey’ come to mind. And it is because these films take the bare bones of the story and find greater meaning in them, and twist and change them into something new that keeps both versions of the story fresh, entertaining and enjoyable.
And that is where Robbert Egger’s second film slots into place.
And my god, have he and his brother Max been loose in their interpretation of not only Edgar Allen-Poe’s ‘The Light-House’ but also in the story of Prometheus. That may have given too much away, but it doesn’t really matter. Because at the film’s core it’s not really about that.
The film follows the story of Ephraim Winslow (Robbert Pattinson in a surprisingly fantastic turn. I recently finished watching the first ‘Twilight’ movie, and it astounds me that it is the same man in both films) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe. Enough said. Willem is a genius, someone give this man an Oscar), or ‘Tom’ to those who do and don’t know him alike. He’s the sort of man that it is difficult to tell if anyone, let alone himself, truly knows them.
Ephraim and Thomas are polar opposites in every sense of the phrase. Thomas is loud, Ephraim is quiet. Thomas is a drunkard, Ephraim is tee-total. Thomas is flatulent (I know this seems a bit irrelevant of me to have brought it up, but trust me, you’ll understand), Ephraim holds his personal hygiene a touch closer to his heart. From the very start it seems that these men are destined to hate each other.
But it doesn’t go that way. For four weeks they seem to barely even piss each other off. There are close calls, as there were bound to be, for instance when Ephraim won’t toast his glass, or when Thomas politely informs Winslow that since Thomas is the older and more experienced Wickie (lighthouse keeper) only he will be able to tend the light (you can begin to see Prometheus, no?).
Sure, things go a bit nuts. In ways that I couldn’t describe for a school newspaper (or any newspaper, for that matter) but at the end of their month-long shift, everything seems ok. But this is a myth, remember, a fairy-tale. Everything is not ok. As it shouldn’t be. Only after seagulls with souls and terrible storms and some fairly drunken evenings will the story feel whole. And that’s the way it should be.
‘How long have we been on this rock? Five weeks? Two days?’ says Wake, and like him, the film doesn’t want us to know. Paper that was wet that suddenly became bone dry in seconds, or was it days? Weeks going by in mere minutes, time seems like the film’s plaything more than anything else. We sit and wonder how much of what we are seeing we can trust, and when the film tells us not to trust it, it somehow convinces us that that is in and of itself a lie.
This film’s brilliance however, no matter how much I go on about it, is not solely down to the screenplay because everything about it is masterful.
The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is undeniably terrific. Black and white films can often feel like a gimmick, but in this instance, it’s more than just overbearing grey. Heavy, heavy grey that weighs down upon you as you watch the film. Added to the films 1.19:1 aspect ratio (for those who don’t know, the aspect ratio is how long or short either side of the film’s frame is. Most films you’ll watch will be 4:3 or 16:9. Comparatively, 1.19:1 is a square) this makes the whole experience of watching the film incredibly claustrophobic.
Speaking of claustrophobia, the sound design physically hurt my ears the first time I heard it. It crams you into a small, tight space and doesn’t let you leave. Jarring yet clever, and supremely well used, the weird, almost alien noises of deep bells and jammed tape recorders add to the already relatively subtle horror in a fantastically effective way. Sound design is not something I normally comment on in a film, but it is used to a great effect that the film would simply not be the experience it was without it. The ambience is always important to horror films, and when done well, will elevate a film beyond just it’s four walls.
And I mean experience. This is not a film that you will watch. This is a film that you will be consumed by for the entirety of its run time. It swallows you whole and doesn’t let up until the world’s strangest sea-shanty begins to play. It feels more like a nightmare than anything else. A long, terrible, brilliantly crafted nightmare.
Robbert Eggers clearly thought about this film for a long time before making it, and it shows. Everything about this film, everyone who is in this film and everyone who worked on this film did their absolute level best. The credits are just a long list of genius after genius.