Director: Robert Eggers Starring: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe Running Time: 109 minutes
Flying witches, talking goats, mystical seagulls. That’s only a select few of the mad and intriguing things that director Robert Eggers has brought to his first two feature films; 2015’s The Witch and, now, The Lighthouse. There is no doubt that Eggers likes to challenge cinema goers or, more accurately, create stories that demand attention and encourage debate. A straightforward cinema experience is not something you are going to get here, but you are, without a doubt, the better for that. With The Lighthouse, Eggers delivers an atmospheric psychological thriller unlike any other you’ll see all year. This is an intoxicating, feverish, unnerving and often hilarious experience and one that will have fans ruminating on its messages for years.
In the dwindling years of the 19th century, on an isolated island off the coast of New England stands a lighthouse. As the foghorn bellows, the island welcomes two new residents, a wickie named Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) and a lighthouse keeper named Thomas Wake (Dafoe). Tasked with maintaining the light, the duo see to their chores only spending time together to toast the dying hours of sunlight, where they share stories, food and, most certainly, alcohol. As the days roll by, their month-long stint begins to feel like an eternity as strange visions begin to appear to the troubled Winslow, leading him to question his partner on the mysterious island.
Similarly to The Witch, The Lighthouse is exceptional at transporting the audience to the time and place that its story unfolds. The film’s wonderfully crafted script captures the time period perfectly by blending a mix of 19th century dialect with nautical terminology: Wake’s drunken legends, tales and curses land with a terrifying realism when spoken with the tongue of the time period. This writing style particularly assists the movie in its frequent jumps between Winslow’s feverish visions of mermaids & krakens and the harsh reality of their day-to-day occupation on the island.
The writing, however, isn’t the only portal through which we visit these lands. Before ever a word is said, we arrive at the island to the bone rattling sound of a 19th century foghorn before setting foot on the creaking and unkept floorboards of the lightkeeper’s cabin. Eggers and Craig Lathrop (production designer) have created a setting that feels fitting for the time period while maintaining the same ‘haunted’ atmosphere these buildings have adopted since the 19th century from years of neglect. The film’s use of black & white photography helps capture the unwelcoming environment, suffocating lights and colours to heighten the extremes of the island and the tension between our characters.
While on the island, we are dragged through the same mud and weathered by the same waves as Winslow & Wake, all thanks to the superb cinematography of Jarin Blaschke. Through a mixture of modern and antiquated techniques, Blaschke ensures that no shot is wasted in telling this story. The film feels, at times, like an old silent movie, in which the lack of language forced filmmakers to rely on more expressive visuals and imagery. The tension he cultivates between Winslow & Wake is heightened by the use of a claustrophobic aspect ratio (1.19:1), assisting the idea of this space closing in on our two protagonists as they start to slowly go mad.
With an arthouse style, it is easy to forget that The Lighthouse includes some Hollywood’s biggest stars in its small cast: Willem Dafoe & Robert Pattinson. I’ve gotten into the habit of typing “Pattinson’s best role yet” over the last few years (particularly when he pairs up with A24), but there is certainly a case to be made in typing that again here. Pattinson’s turn as the reserved and angry Winslow is so important to the film. As Wake taunts and interrogates Winslow, Pattinson portrays a man with a troubled past attempting to get through his work without incident while slowly beginning to boil over with repressed rage. As the film progresses, the character’s journey to the depths of his own sanity is made all the more harrowing through the excellent work of Pattinson.
However, it is Dafoe that delivers arguably the best performance of the year. Thomas Wake is a man who has spent too much time in his own company. Convinced of the stupidity of those around him, he speaks with great confidence on the subject of old nautical curses and legends, and makes sure to keep Winslow beneath his boot at all times. The exquisite writing is delivered with blistering authenticity by Dafoe – you truly can’t take your eyes off him during his drunken tirades. Beyond the delivery of lines, Dafoe perfectly embodies the character of Thomas Wake, morphing his body and face to do so. It is truly a delight to watch Dafoe work in this film. In fact, Dafoe provides The Lighthouse with possibly his greatest performance from his long, long career.
The Lighthouse is a movie that lends itself to endless debate. In many ways, the film is more concerned with theme and atmosphere than it is with the plot itself. Instead of telling a clear-cut story, it is happy to experiment with ideas and ask its audience to fill in the blanks. Although it might challenge some viewers, this approach truly rewards those who subscribe to the experiential aspects of the film and allow themselves to be transported to this world. For this reviewer, The Lighthouse is a movie that grapples with the absurdity of machismo. It is equally a film that explores the idea of an unavoidable future, crafted by the repercussions of our past. From countless discussions with other people (both major film fans and not), there are multiple messages at play here. In a world where cinema discourse has been hijacked by blockbuster gossip, how brilliant is it to find an arthouse film cultivating the same amount of discussion?!(4.5 / 5)