Does “The Lighthouse” deserve Best Cinematography?

Best Cinematography is probably my favorite category. When director Robert Eggers‘ film The Lighthouse was nominated for Best Cinematography, I had to see it. If you read a recent post of mine, you might remember my enthusiasm for 1917. If Roger Deakins doesn’t pick up the statue for the award, I hope Jarin Blaschke wins the Oscar for The Lighthouse. 

Here are some reasons why The Lighthouse was superior in cinematography.

  1. The film is set on a remote island somewhere in New England in the 1890s. A lighthouse rules the environment with its domineering size and elegant white neck. The foghorn blares and the light revolves. Raging waves, pounding rain, and creepy seagulls hop about and give the place a forlorn, ancient aura. The theme of dark and light is central to the characters as they fall victim to their physical surroundings while confronting supernatural elements the longer they stay on the island. Choosing to film it in black and white and using 1.19:1(19:16) — I needed to look up (Wikipedia) what this was and figure out the advantage to the choice.

1.19:1 (19:16): Sometimes referred to as the Movietone ratio, this ratio was used briefly during the transitional period when the film industry was converting to sound, from 1926 to 1932 approx. It is produced by superimposing an optical soundtrack over a full-gate 1.3 aperture in printing, resulting in an almost square image. Films shot in this ratio are often projected or transferred to video incorrectly using a 1.37 mask or squashed to 1.37. Examples of films shot in the Movietone ratio include SunriseMHallelujah! and The Lighthouse.

The cinematic choice adds to the historical climate giving the picture a classic feel. It boxes the story adding to the claustrophobia. As the story progresses, the audience feels the confinement caused by the weather and the lighthouse.

2. It’s a psychological horror story. The story is about two lighthouse keepers who struggle with their sanity. Pattinson did a fine job. However, it was one of Willem Defoe’s best performances. The claustrophobic rooms, the spiral staircase, the beautiful glass prisms of the lens of the lighthouse gave the film a somber, spirited, beautifully dark environment that justified the psychological horror story. The varying camera angles and close-ups capture this and add to the tension. One major criticism was the score. The overloud-Hans-Zimmer-sledgehammer thuds were unnecessary. Especially when the actual horror happens in the final act. The constant sound of the foghorn would audibly drive anyone insane.

3. I don’t like horror films, but I love psychologically intense films. This felt like Hitchcock. Watching Pattinson’s character devolve and lose his sanity was wonderful. That is, the cinematography includes snippet glimpses of Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) with mermaids and disturbing dream sequences. The shots looked up at the face of the crusty sea-dog played by Willem Defoe, elongating the bags under his eyes, and at times, when he stood to give godly sermons, he rose in stature and became frightening. I loved that he sang old sailor songs, told nonsensical stories (that come true), and spoke in the vernacular of a sailor in the 1890s. His mood-swinging personality kept me on edge. Two men are alone on an island for a month. How do you suppose they spend the time? I ended up liking them both even though they were morally gray.

4. A basic theme of the story is the corruption of the soul and the punishment that ensues. Who gives the punishment?  The lighthouse was Godlike. Seeking the light, Ephraim Winslow steals up to the lantern and faces the light — light that a mortal shouldn’t see. The shots that show Ephraim facing the supernatural force is awesome.

5. The ending shot is peculiar and perplexing. It sure screams of the Greek myth “Prometheus” who was punished by Zeus for helping mankind. What are your thoughts about the ending scene? During the first act, Ephraim acts out on a sea bird. A bad omen. Ephraim dreams of mating with a mermaid. A bad omen. All of the bad omens and superstitions of the nautical world are included in the story to give it an interesting aspect. The motif of blindness runs through the film such as the bird and the head of a dead man. Being blinded by the light is a punishment no one is likely to survive. It’s not a film for everyone. But I liked it. 4/5

66 Comments on “Does “The Lighthouse” deserve Best Cinematography?

  1. I have this on my list to watch and based on this terrific writeup, I will be doing that this weekend! Either this or “1917” seem miles above all other nominees!

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  2. As you know Cindy, this movie is as good as it got for me in 2019. Really, as good as movies have been for me in years. I was utterly, utterly transported. And I can’t add anything to your thoughts here because you’ve captured all that I’ve wanted to say. I particularly like you singling out the shot of Winslow captured by the light. That single shot has stayed with me ever since. Actually, a few of them have but that’s definitely at the forefront. Accompanied by the bizarre score at that point, it’s an indelible moment. As for the ending shot — it’s the only shot there could have been. How could this have worked out any other way for the poor lad?

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    • I remember your review and your appreciation for it. I think it’s very interesting. I didn’t see The Witch, but now I want to. The ending scene. Because it shows him away from the lighthouse without clothes, it seems like the lighthouse won. I’m still thinking about whether it worked for me or not. But I love the Greek references. Remember in Indiana Jones at the end when the guy looks in the ark and sees enlightenment then horror? Also, that glorious expression again in Pulp Fiction when they look in the briefr case? I really loved how the cinematography captures that experience here. The other shot that had me totally in was when DeFoe was nude and posed up at the lens of the light house. It’s one I could watch again.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have read some good things about this film, but didn’t know it was shot ‘square format’. I like to take photos in 6 X 6, so will be very interested to see this film. And Dafoe has rarely disappointed me. His dream-like role in ‘Light Sleeper’ has stayed with me since I watched it in 1993.

    As for The Witch’, which you mention, I have it on DVD. I don’t think you have seen my review.
    https://beetleypete.com/2018/03/15/just-been-watching-59/

    Best wishes, Pete. x

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  4. Psychological thrillers get me exhausted by the end of the movie or book – Great, aren’t they?!! Thanks for the review!

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    • I can’t watch them every day (anymore). I find myself searching for light-hearted story lines that are well made. Not an easy task! I don’t know why dramas and intense films are generally better than romcons or upbeat silly stories.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t seen the movie, Cindy. I’ve heard mostly good things about it but was still on the fence as to see it or not. You’ve convinced me to give it a go.

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    • There is an element of history, the culture of lightkeepers which is appealing. There is an aura of creepiness. I liked the isolated setting. And the weather.
      But it might not be your cup of tea.

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  6. As best as I can, I try not to read anything about a movie going in. I had imagined this was gonna be a Wes Anderson style movie with a light-ish dark edge filmed in black and white. Haha! Oh how we laughed at the end! I loved it but it wasn’t what I was expecting. hehe

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  7. Great post 🙂 I love The Lighthouse and Willem Dafoe is fantastic in it indeed 🙂 Since you love cinematography, do some research on the late Vilmos Zsigmond – he is just one of many masters in the field 🙂 Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

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  8. photography is not cinematography. while this was well photographed, it held no cinematic interest for me. one of the dullest movies of the year.

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    • Hmm. Okay. I wouldn’t classify this film’s strength with the narrative. I think the story line had it’s issues. But the cinematography, I thought was really good. So what would be the difference between photography and cinematography?

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      • that is a hard question to answer if you dont already know. hitigraph is a still image. cinematgraphy is telling a story through a connected series of movieng imagesm and is as much the work of the director as the cinematographer. jiker is oure ciematograoh as is 1917. but light huse is a static od fashioned stage play with great care given the static images, but it is not the juxtaposition or connectivity of those images that tell the story. it is all phony mood maipulation.

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        • I get you. However, I do think the island, the birds, the lighthouse and the lens are characters in this “play” and I felt the growing tension build because of the shots. It’s fun to ponder. I would say the greater error was the script. The narrative was static. I thought the cinematography conveyed the claustrophobia, the primary reason they went nuts.
          Obviously, I liked it more than you.

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      • a cross between king of comedy and taxi driver, scorsese should have directed it instesad of irshman, ,,,,,decent cinematgrahy, terrible scrit, good performaces ,,joachim desrves his oscar ….my vote for best animated shrt goes to Blind Vaysha. Rermarkable film

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        • Oh, good. I’ll have to watch it. I thought the same when I saw Joker. I agree — I think Scorsese would have had fun with it. What didn’t you like about the script?

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          • it was incoherent…a seris of manic scenes, no insight into the character. predictible shocjs, such as when he shot deniro….and really dumb fake conspiricy suggstions with the rest of the clowns. visuals of pre apocalyotic society borrowed from cheesy films such as 1885s Strange Days. the while thing reminded me of that horrible suoerficial film ofhubert selbys fine novel, requiem for a dream.

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          • iit wasnt bad but i took it off after 45 minutes as it wasnt holding my interest. ill finish watchng it one of these days. did you like it?

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          • I felt the same way. I dozed off for a bit. When I woke up it had become a horror movie and I wasn’t sure what the heck was going on.
            Wow. A lot of top awards and love at the Oscars for it.

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          • i guessed all the acting awards correctly, but failed on everythiing else. ridiculous to give parasite both best pitctur and best international picture. Almodovers Pain and Glory should have taken the latter prize.

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          • I, like you, guessed the acting awards and was dumfounded with the Best Film award. I sure don’t think so! I was impressed with the clips for Pai and Glory. It looked like AB did a fine job and it looks interesting. Will have to rent it soon.

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          • im taking a break from Parsite rght now. it is such a tedious movie wth a hackneyed theme. parenthetically similar but so much better is the highly entertaining Knives Out, Its not abyt a family taking over a household, but unworthy heirs conniving for the inheritance.

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          • i finally made it through to the end of parasite. ht a useless, boring drudge of a movie. it had absolutely othing to say to me, nothing to offer within the tired genre it pillaged. just dull, pointess crap.. the ony best picture nominees that were worse were once upon a time in hollywood and little women. i dont think people really go to movies anymore the way they used to, and that explains why the academy chose such poor movies. they didnt see the good ones. and there were so many good ones this year, but few people seem to even know about them.

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          • Why is that, I wonder. It seems like we are bombarded with choices. I am tired that the movies seem to be chosen for some political means.

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          • we are bombarded with choices, but there is o coherent release pattern of films, and no daily reviews. people discover a movie after it has had its brief theatrical run, or they anticipate its release through pre release hype and then forget about it. worse is the lack of real movie theatres in real neighborhoods where pwople meet up in coffeehouse after the fim is over and argue about it. thisis what is eeded to make movies part of the culture. today movies are consumed so privately that they make no cultural impact. that mig this years oscars had the smallest audience of all time.

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          • You are spot on, Bill. I agree totally with everything you say. However, I don’t recall ever sitting in a coffeehouse afterwards to discuss a film. That would be fun. You open one, and I’ll be there.

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  9. I loved the film, and I loved the cinematography! If heaven exists, I want it to look like this movie! 😉 Anyhow, this is a fascinating movie, one of my favorite movies of 2019. BTW, have you seen Midsommar? That’s another odd, but interesting and great-looking mystery-movie.

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  10. Cinematography was a very strong category this year. I did enjoy the artful black and white photography of The Lighthouse. It was very poetic. However Roger Deakin’s cinematography for 1917 completely blew me away. I sat in the theater gasping at the utter spectacle.

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  11. Wow, you know your stuff! I find acting duets more fascinating and intense than anything superhero. This one kept me on the edge of my seat. MCU flicks guarantee yawns for me…

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    • Hi Bernie! I’m glad you’re back. Yes, I agree with you. The LIghthouse felt like a play, didn’t it? I like the claustrophobic feel to whole film. The island and birds and weather made it believable for me to think that Patterson’s character would go bonkers. I love the time period, too. So rare you get to see that on the screen. The only major criticism I had was the score.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed – 1917 (Thomas Newman, a fave of mine since Scent of a Woman) was far superior; The Lighthouse score was borderline distracting. And, yes, the effort it takes to replicate a “play” and make it that entertaining for the screen still astounds me.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Love how you’re highlighting how complex this movie is! For sure one where you either get it or you’re confused and repulsed lol. I like how you highlighted Willem as THAT speech punctuated by the “HAAAARKKK!” is etched my mind forever.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Welcome, Paul! I’m glad you liked it, too. I thought Willem was great. I can’t think of many actors who could have pulled it off like he did. Pattison impresses more and more as the years separate him from his Twilight years.

      Liked by 1 person

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