The Lighthouse Transports Viewers Back in Time

November 13, 2019 | By Lucia Tarro, Illustrations by Jenny Chen

The Lighthouse, directed by Robert Eggers, is one of the most innovative and unique films released this year, even in the last decade. This is the newest creation of Eggers, who made his directorial debut with his New England horror film The Witch (2015). Once again, the indie production company A24 backed Eggers to bring horror to a new time in history. This film may be a turn-off for some people, as it boasts a black and white color palette and a square aspect ratio, but they would be missing out on an incredible display of creativity from this newly established director and his all-star team, one that stands out in the homogenous landscape of film today. 


Illustrations by Jenny Chen

The story follows lighthouse keeper Tom Wake (Willem Dafoe) and his new partner Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) as they arrive on an island off the coast of 1890s New England to maintain its lighthouse, all the while slowly losing their sanity. We follow the perspective of Ephraim as he gets used to his strange partner Tom’s antics and the qualms that come with living on an isolated rock in the middle of the ocean, made worse with the emergence of a dangerous storm. In Ephraim’s attempts to understand the mysteries surrounding him, we never know more than he does and feel just as disillusioned, a result of the career-changing performances given by Pattinson and Dafoe.  


In the past decade, Pattinson has been working tirelessly to shake off the reputation of his Twilight years, pushing the boundaries of acting through indie and big budget projects alike. If he hadn’t achieved it yet, he certainly did here. Pattinson expertly captures the shy reservedness and the absolute neuroticism his character wavers between without missing a beat. His performance manages to balance the theatrical and naturalistic moments this film demands and, despite having a less notable character than Dafoe, he nearly outshines him. 


But Dafoe brings his game as well. From employing a comically accurate New England sailor dialect to delivering monologues that shake you to your core with just the subtle movements of his face, Dafoe takes a role that could have easily become a stereotype and makes it his own. While Pattinson’s performance is certainly notable for his career, Dafoe’s may go down as one of the most iconic roles in cinema. Dafoe’s striking, chameleon-like appearance contributes to his character, creating unease even in his calmer moments. Both actors deliver some daring monologues, which definitely benefit from Eggers’ prior experience as a theater director. 


Illustrations by Jenny Chen

The performances are absolutely a highlight of the film, but what may be more notable is how this film looks like it was made in the 1940s or earlier. In an interview with, Eggers explains that he took inspiration from this era when creating the style for his film. Drawing from this influence, the film uses a rare 1.19:1 aspect ratio that frames every shot in a square, and uses it in a very modern way. This square frame increases the feeling of claustrophobia and intimacy present throughout the film. The characters are constantly pushed up next to each other and their faces take up the whole screen in close-up shots. The result feels suffocating both for the characters and for the viewers. Another call back to early cinema is the striking black and white gradient of the film. It allows Eggers to play around with harsh values and lighting, creating horror from his extreme visuals. 


However, he went a step further than that. In the same interview, Eggers notes that all the lighting in the film was done using real lights on set. When a lantern is highlighting Pattinson’s face, that’s all real. There are no giant LED lights behind the camera to make it more extreme or obvious, just the lamps, fires, and sunlight depicted in the film. This decision produces some truly unique visuals which, paired with the black and white and the square framing, are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. 


The Lighthouse is surely a very niche film, having garnered the affection of film critics and aficionados alike, but it can be a valuable entertainment experience for anyone with an appreciation for cinema. The story is intriguing and unexpected, with incredible character performances from Pattinson and Dafoe and breathtaking visuals. Hopefully, horror filmmakers and the movie industry will take cues from Eggers’ creativity, and we’ll begin seeing more interesting films like The Lighthouse in the coming years.