When making a film, Robert Eggers prioritizes one thing above all else: creating atmosphere. In the case of The Lighthouse, a “crusty, rusty, musty, black-and-white atmosphere,” inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story of the same name, originally adapted by the director’s brother Max Eggers. As the siblings collaborated on the script, though, it shed almost all resemblance to the original material and instead became the claustrophobic, folkloric tale of two lighthouse keepers (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe), both named Thomas, marooned together on a remote island off the coast of late 19th century Maine, fighting with the elements, each other, and their own sanity. In order to understand the world and style of the times, Eggers studied writers like Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as well as the local Sarah Orne Jewett and actual diaries and logs left over from those years.
As in his 2015 debut The Witch, another period horror set in New England, Eggers displays an aptitude for taking a historical moment and giving it modern resonance; what is set up as a hermetic character study dons epic proportions by painting its protagonists as Greek gods, and their struggles the struggles of humanity. This is done as much with the script as with the imagery, taken from Symbolist artists Jean Delville, Sasha Schneider, and Arnold Bocklin. The hallucinatory, sometimes nightmarish visuals from their paintings combine with a silent film era look- a boxy 1.19:1 aspect ratio and orthochromatic black and white film stock- to achieve an aesthetic that feels both loyal to the period and innovative in the present day. The effect- to pull the audience into a creaky, perpetually soggy world filled with toxic masculinity, badly kept secrets, and slow-burn tension. When describing The Lighthouse, for once you could sincerely begin, “It was a dark and stormy night…”