“The Lighthouse” is a shining example of the visceral reaction a film can have on a viewer; It is an art house thriller for the ages.
Following his 2015 debut “The Witch,” a horror film taking place in New England, Robert Eggers is back with “The Lighthouse.” Set in the 1890s on a remote island and filmed in bleak black and white, “The Lighthouse” is an even more challenging watch than its predecessor.
The movie begins with lighthouse workers, Wake, played by Willem Dafoe, and Winslow, played by Robert Pattinson, arriving on a small, desolate island. Over many solitary days and nights, they work, eat, drink and dig at each other, establishing a bristling antagonism born of temperament and boredom or maybe just narrative convenience.
Wake is the seasoned veteran looking to keep his control over the lighthouse and Winslow is the young man searching for refuge and purpose. In time, their minds and tongues are loosened by alcohol and perhaps the primal need for companionship. The wind howls, the camera prowls, the sea roars and Eggers flexes his estimable filmmaking technique as the film’s main mystery thickens.
Tension builds and is exacerbated by Wake’s hard drinking and Winslow’s Lynchian and Lovecraftian visions of horrors on the shore. Are the terrifying images in his mind? Or is there some supernatural force at work? Needless to say, matters eventually come to a head in harrowing fashion.
Eggers plunges the audience into the 1890s with very little friction due to a combination of the film’s elements. The first contributor is the ominous production design by Craig Lathrop, whose team built the 70-foot-tall lighthouse and lighthouse keepers’ quarters in just six weeks. Then, the 1.19:1 aspect ratio which matches the slim and claustrophobic lighthouse. Third, the realistic dialogue written by Eggers and his brother and co-screenwriter Max Eggers, which uses author Sarah Orne Jewell’s work as a guide. Finally, there is Mark Korven’s haunting musical score, which marries each individual frame of the film. These elements are all maxed out and dangerously close to distortion in “The Lighthouse,” but this matches the downward spiral of insanity that engulfs the film’s two characters.
The power struggle between Wake and Winslow is riveting, with the men wanting to punch each other one minute and kiss each other the next, in between their singing, arguing and dancing.
Both Dafoe and Pattinson deliver towering performances in what’s essentially a two-hander. You can’t take your eyes off Dafoe, cracking jokes one minute, threatening violence the next and breaking wind in the moments between. Seriously.
Pattinson, meanwhile, is all pent-up anger and simmering rage, biting his tongue until he can chew it no more, then exploding through a terrifying tirade.
The cold, stark photography also helps set the scene, breeding a horribly oppressive atmosphere, and mirroring the harsh and unforgiving conditions the men face throughout the film. In spite of the many hardships presented on screen, however, Eggers and his cast find humor in the misery through clever wordplay, a spot of slapstick and Winslow’s ongoing battle with a seagull.
Knowledge of Greek mythology is not required to enjoy the film, but it is a requirement for those who need concrete answers. This viewing experience of ”The Lighthouse” is similar to reading postmodern literature. There may be chapters or scenes that seem strange and unrelated, but don’t let them stop you from going on ― the final picture will fill in the blanks.
“The Lighthouse” is one of the most original films released in recent memory and it is sure to puzzle viewers after their first viewing. But with each subsequent watch, “The Lighthouse” will justify its time commitment with its questions of masculinity, purpose, sexuality, isolation and guilt. The film also features a great mystery that has the potential to become cemented among movie history’s biggest discussion points, like the briefcase in “Pulp Fiction.”
If you’re willing to give yourself over to the dark imagery, taxing language and terrifying themes, “The Lighthouse” will leave you hypnotized and in awe by the closing credits as you embark on this truly priceless ride.