Every aspect of Robert Eggers and Jarin Blaschke’s surrealist work ‘The Lighthouse’ pushes limits. From its dark humour to its physical claustrophobia, the film continuously pushes us away and then pulls us back in. Released by A24 studios, ‘The Lighthouse’ depicts a lighthouse keeper (Willem Dafoe) and a seasonal worker (Robert Pattinson) who must share a small island and an even smaller house for four weeks. These four weeks develop into a testing tale of madness and manipulation, as both the characters and the audience lose track of how long the pair have been there, whether it has been months or just a week. ‘The Lighthouse’ masterfully creates a world so oppressive and cruel that we don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

The film’s 1.2 aspect ratio creates and sustains a claustrophobic intensity that is inescapable throughout. Both the audience and the characters are offered no respite or breather from the onslaught of confinement. As Blaschke, the director of photography, intended, the almost square shots coop Dafoe and Pattinson in, barely allowing room for the pair to act independently of one another. The overbearing physicality that the pair take on, the space they command on screen, and how they interact with each other, is all influenced by the cinematography. Battling for space both on the screen and throughout the narrative, the aspect ratio mirrors the enclosed locations and the enclosed relationship.

Whilst the pair battle for their own space within these frames, the aspect ratio allows for powerful portrait shots. ‘The Lighthouse’ places a lot on the theatricality and expressions of Dafoe and Pattinson. Both starting off very reserved and calm, as their situation maddens, so their expressions develop and warp. This is heightened by Eggers and Blaschke’s choice of film. Deciding to use Kodak Double X black-and-white negative, rather than shooting digital, stylizes and dramatizes the heavily lit portrait shots, the cuts from night scenes to startling day, and the harsh environment of the island.

Without falling into parody or pastiche, ‘The Lighthouse’ takes inspiration from a range of genres, myths, and eras, blending them all without losing their individual intricacies. The centrality and god-like power of the lighthouse bulb mirrors the fascination with the electric and machinal as found in early Modernism. Its perfection and symmetry in direct contrast with the deluge of the dated setting heightens its power. Alongside these modernist tropes, surrealism is central to the imagery and narrative of ‘The Lighthouse’. As both characters move further and further from their original controlled and professional selves, so the images we are faced with become more and more eccentric. Pattinson’s daydreams and nightmares start to blur with real life; there becomes no separation between the two, confusing our grasp on perceived reality. Mythical imagery is central throughout, whilst the biblical strength of nature is equally foregrounded. The harsh landscape of the island, the bullying seagulls, and the omnipotence of the ocean all overpower the pair of workers.

As the madness ensues, Eggers and Blaschke delve further into their stylized experimentation. These tropes become exaggerated and interspersed with one another. The theatrical still of a naked, God-like Dafoe standing over Pattinson, lit fleetingly by lightning, highlights this movement away from the real towards the artistic and surreal. The dialogue also develops into detached theatricality. Dafoe’s extended Shakespearean speech, as the pair and their surroundings descend deeper into disarray, edges on the comical in its intensity and language. The film grows into a stylized and controlled piece of art, depicting in contrast the pair’s increasing lack of control over themselves and their surroundings.

On reflection, there are many meanings that we can read into the pair’s narrative. Pattinson’s character Ephraim Winslow could depict Icarus, obsessed with reaching the light, Prometheus, made to suffer eternally for his sins, and more generically the repressed worker, tormented for seeking autonomy. Mark Corven’s original score eerily amplifies this arthouse account of a pair’s maddening relationship with the elements and with each other. Whilst watching ‘The Lighthouse’, I read it as a film that’s aim was to push the narrative, the actors, and the audience to their limits, and it succeeds in doing this throughout.

This film review was written by Letty Gardner. You can follow Letty on Twitter and Instagram.