“The Lighthouse” Reminds Us Of The Power Of Black And White Movies

Spoiler warning for “The Lighthouse”

Color is a crucial and often overlooked aspect of filmmaking. From the fabulous technicolor paradises of late 1930s fantasy to the brooding and oppressive atmospheres of today’s DC superhero movies, color is the fabric of a film’s world, and its effects on an audience cannot be understated. 

Often, the difference between a visually stunning masterpiece and a dull waste of time lies in the ability of the film’s color to convey its themes and establish a compelling atmosphere. Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 film “Parasite” has been lauded for its ability to portray class separation through changing visual moods. “Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbes and Shaw,” a movie released the same year with deliberately unremarkable coloration, has been largely forgotten.

Of course, color is not the only determining factor of a movie’s quality. “Parasite” is a fabulously written, fabulously acted and fabulously directed societal critique, while “Hobbes and Shaw” is a ruthless adherent to the status quo that has very little to say about anything. Nevertheless, color is an essential filmmaking tool to leave a lasting impression on audience members, stand out from the crowd and build a cinematic world worth taking in.

In discussions about color’s importance in movies, little credit is given to films that prefer a lack of color to an abundance of it. The intensely vivid maximalism in the works of directors like Paul Thomas Anderson and Damien Chazelle is hailed by moviegoers, prioritized over the muted and monochrome sensibilities of other works with just as much to say through their coloration. In the minds of many, interesting is synonymous with vibrant. Caught in the crossfire of this mentality is the style that served as default for Hollywood’s first pictures: the Black and White film.

Black and white movies have garnered a reputation only a little better than that of silent films. Both are popularly regarded as antiquated art forms that appeal to only the most dedicated audiences. In both, technical limitations are said to hold back authenticity and emotionality. Black and white works of the past and present alike are written off by the general public, who trust gaudy and colorful flicks to entertain them over what they perceive to be drab and monotonous think-pieces. 

Yet, this trust is misplaced. Black and white movies have just as much, if not more, to offer than their colorful counterparts.

Black and white filmmaking is more than an important cultural relic born out of technical necessities. It is a visually striking and thematically impactful device that deserves an expanded role in Hollywood today. Many of the most visually arresting, intense movies of the past half-century have been purposely filmed in black and white. 

Robert Eggers’s 2019 film “The Lighthouse” exemplifies the merits of black and white in the modern age. Starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, the movie follows the two men’s descent into madness as they tend to a storm-battered lighthouse. 

The movie is limited to three settings, each possessing a powerful and distinct visual mood within the constraints of black and white: the inside of the lighthouse, the surrounding island and the lighthouse’s top.

The inside of the lighthouse is mired in shadow throughout the film. This gives an oppressive, demonic quality to the frenzied arguments between the two men, highlighting the hellish fury that glints within each of their eyes. 

Immediately subjected to these artistic choices, the audience finds itself trapped within the lighthouse walls, forced to bear witness to its fraying sanity alongside that of the leading actors. Violence and perverse depravity are reduced to expectations, as the lowest levels of human behavior are explored inside the lighthouse.

The island fluctuates between moments of ink-black darkness and intense whiteness, but for the most part, it assumes a grayed-out middle ground between the two. It is the sparring ground between man and nature, society and sea. The story’s most impactful moments of violence, the murder of the seabird and the disembowelment of Howard, occur against the blood-stained rocks of the island.

The top of the lighthouse is bright, blindingly white. Its light transfixes Howard and Wake, offering the two men tantalizing and elusive visions. It corrupts the two men from the inside out, scouring them of sanity. It is an angelic countenance, too sacred to live within the impure gray and black beings. Only the coat of the seabirds, the souls of stranded sailors, echoes the whiteness of the light.

“The Lighthouse” is a visceral, evocative and entertaining film not in spite of, but because of its bold stylistic choices and its willingness to break conventional elements of cinematography, storytelling and sound design. The movie benefits from being in black and white, both tonally and thematically.

We must divorce the monochrome from the monotone and judge all films for what they have to say, not how they have to say it. Whether contemporary offerings like “The Lighthouse” and 2021’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” or older movies like 1960’s “Breathless” and 1966’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” black and white films are a necessary part of a balanced cinematic diet. By neglecting them and writing them off as a novelty or a thing of the past, we are doing a great disservice to what movies are capable of as an art form.