The Lighthouse Review
'The Witch' director Robert Eggers is back to divide audiences once more with the weird period piece 'The Lighthouse.'
Release Date: October 25, 2019
MPAA Rating: R
The hypnotic and hallucinatory tale of two lighthouse keepers on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s.
Director: Robert Eggers
Screenwriters: Robert Eggers, Max Eggers
Producers: Robert Eggers, Youree Henley, Lourenco Sant’ Anna, Rodrigo Teixeira, Jay Van Hoy
Cast: Willem Dafoe (Thomas Wake), Robert Pattinson (Ephraim Winslow), Valeriia Karaman (Mermaid)
Editor: Louise Ford
Cinematographer: Jarin Blaschke
Production Designer: Craig Lathrop
Casting Director: Kharmel Cochrane
Music Score: Mark Korven
Writer/director Robert Eggers polarized both fans and critics alike with his first feature film The Witch. But that’s nothing compared to what he does with The Lighthouse.
The Lighthouse is about two lighthouse keepers who sign on for a four-week stint at an isolated island location. Thomas Wake (The Florida Project’s Willem Dafoe) is the grizzled veteran captain, and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson from High Life) is his green protégé. When a freak storm hits, the two men get trapped in the lighthouse and, as Thomas says, “boredom makes men to villains.” Cabin fever sets in and the pair loses track of time, not knowing if they’ve been there two days or five weeks. They do know, however, that help is not coming, and the dark and tiny confines of the lighthouse are not big enough for the both of them.
The Lighthouse is a really weird film. What Eggers has basically done is bring together two of the greatest actors of their separate generations, toss them into a singular location that’s both claustrophobic and wide open, give them a sparse-yet-carefully crafted script, and let them go at it, capturing everything in a rustic, old-timey style of photography. So, as a whole, the film feels like something that might be found tucked away in an attic somewhere, just waiting to be discovered by a treasure-seeking cinephile. One can almost hear the celluloid click-clacking its way through the projector as they watch The Lighthouse.
Dafoe and Pattinson both have field days in The Lighthouse, with the narrative unfolding almost like that of a stage play. The action all takes place on a single island, much of it inside the same room, and the violently verbal performances are the root of the film. It’s a two person show, but Dafoe and Pattinson do have a little help from a surreal mermaid that may or may not be a figment of Winslow’s tired imagination and a feisty seagull that is very real, taunting and tormenting the younger lighthouse keeper to the brink of madness while being protected by the elder (“It’s bad luck to kill a seabird” Thomas tells Winslow). The tertiary “characters” only add to the weirdness of The Lighthouse.
Now, in its attempt to show the escalating madness of the situation, The Lighthouse does get a little too crazy. At times, it turns to complete cinematic anarchy. And this is where it may lose a lot of viewers. Half of the audience will praise it as being a work of pure cinema while the other half will dismiss it as filmic masturbation. And, given that The Witch also split viewers just as cleanly down the middle, that might be Robert Eggers’ whole intention. Which side will you be on? You’ll have to see The Lighthouse to find out. But, whether you love it or hate it, you won’t soon forget it.
It takes a lot of work to make a movie look like a director didn’t work on its look. And that’s how The Lighthouse looks. Robert Eggers once again teams up with his The Witch cinematographer Jarin Blaschke to make The Lighthouse the most distinct looking movie of the year. It’s shot in stark black and white, with the quirky, almost square aspect ratio of 1.19:1, so it has a vintage feel to it that goes back way farther than to just tube television sets. Images were also captured through a custom cyan filter, so every frame looks like a nineteenth century photograph. Although it’s highly manufactured, the film has a very natural look, with even the nighttime shots appearing to be using only available light from candles, oil lamps, or the lighthouse itself. This makes The Lighthouse an overly dark movie, so it seems like an old-time spook flick that one might catch on cable TV in the middle of the night. It’s beautiful.
Photography is not the only aspect of The Lighthouse that’s impeccable. Like The Witch before it, Robert Eggers’ direction on the movie is obsessive to the point of insanity. Everything is period perfect, looking like it just stepped out of the nineteenth century, from the costuming to the dialect (and each actor sports a different regional accent and speech pattern that corresponds with their character’s hometown). The sets are intricately detailed as well, so that the audience can practically feel the cold chills and smell the salt-air permeated wood. Eggers is notorious for his meticulous research and his painstaking attention to detail, and his work pays off handsomely in The Lighthouse. Everything about his vision is perfect.
Unless you find the concept of cabin fever and complete isolation terrifying, The Lighthouse isn’t super scary. It doesn’t even have the constant sense of dread that came with The Witch. There is an air of discomfort, but its closer to the discordant chaos of Eraserhead than it is to the abstract horror of Hereditary. The bits where the characters are going crazy could trigger some anxiety, and that anxiety will be heightened by the subtly cacophonous score by Mark Korven (who also scored The Witch for Robert Eggers). And truthfully, a few scenes are extremely disturbing. But, as far as traditional scares go, horror fans will be even more disappointed with The Lighthouse than they were with The Witch.