The Lighthouse was directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch), written by him and his brother Max Eggers, and stars Robert Pattinson as Winslow, a former timberman who may or may not be on the run from his past, and so begins working as a lighthouse keeper for Willem Dafoe’s “Tom” on a remote New England island in the 1890s. The story focuses on the two men as they go about their duties, surviving on the seafood and drink they have for a mere four weeks, at which time a ferry is meant to come and escort them off the rock once they’ve finished their final checks. But this mysterious island possesses an alluring power, a hallucinatory grip on the minds of both its keepers and those at sea, and if Tom’s last keeper is to be believed, there may be some enchantment in the light that makes it nearly impossible to escape. As both men live and work together with nothing else to do but drink and sing sea chanteys, they begin to slowly lose their grip on what is real and what is a fantasy (as does the audience), and the light’s hypnotic influence begins to take hold. With time running short and storms blowing in, Winslow must uncover the dark secrets the island, Tom, and his heart holds, or risk being swallowed up by them, unmade by his own survival.
I was a big fan of Robert Eggers’ directorial debut, The Witch, when it released in 2016, even going so far as to name it the fourth best movie of that entire year despite it having released all the way back in January, and to this day it remains one of my favorite horror films ever made. Its unsettling depiction of pilgrim-era New England and its unflinching brutality towards the boil-pot attitudes and suppressed sexualities of women in that time was so brilliantly disturbing that I only saw it once and thought about it almost every day since; I had never seen anyone tackle a horror film in that vein before (the story was adapted from actual New England folktales and journals of the era), and given that this was also independent studio A24’s first complete foray into the horror genre, it signaled that a new force of artistic merit was not just here to stay, but was here to shake things up, getting back to the genre’s classic roots by building on dread and atmosphere. Plus, it’s where a lot of us were first gifted with seeing the staggering performance chops of lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy. Needless to say, I immediately took an interest when it was announced that Eggers next feature would be a black and white horror film starring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. The latter was fresh off an Oscar nomination for The Florida Project (and, come on, it’s Willem Dafoe – how could anyone not be interested?), with the former having made a name for himself as a legitimately great post-Twilight talent in low-scale indie dramas like The Rover and especially the Safdie Brothers’ smash indie hit Good Time. This was going to be great, and I was prepped and ready to see this the second I could; what I wasn’t prepared for was how great it would actually end up being.
I don’t believe it possible to be able to compare this film and The Witch to see which one is the better movie, not because people can’t have their preferences, but because the two films are two entirely different approaches to Eggers’ philosophy about humanity’s inescapable demons eventually catching up to them (unwillingly or otherwise on the human’s part), and the difference in that approach is what makes this film so difficult to pin down or describe in terms of genre or style. It’s undeniably a horror film, a slow descent into madness that intrigues you until it traps you in your seat so that even if you tried to move, you wouldn’t want to feel yourself trying, although you know the longer you stay, the madder it gets. In fact, there are no two words that can describe what exactly The Lighthouse is that won’t fail to do it justice no matter how apt their application to the film’s quality or essence. Eggers has crafted here a nightmare under keeping of an eerily hypnotic flesh, a hallucinatory sea storm of terrible awe with direction so singular and so uniquely disquieting that one can’t help but stay absolutely fixed in place like its two stars on the island. One of the director’s greatest strengths is his uncanny ability to create an atmosphere that can neither be traced to any source nor replicated by any other project. In any filmmaking genre, The Lighthouse would posses and entrap you by its very nature, but the fact that Eggers manages to do this without you even noticing speaks to it being one of the most unique efforts in all of movie-making, especially horror.
This is all to say nothing of the film’s two leading men, who pull off performances so confident and sure in this film that it might shock me further if they weren’t pushed for nominations at the 2020 Academy Awards this season. Robert Pattinson (recently cast as the new Batman in Matt Reeves’ upcoming film) has been steadily growing his career as a legitimate force to be reckoned with in the acting world, and The Lighthouse doesn’t just prove his Rover and Good Time performances weren’t flukes, but opens up the performer to a whole new kind of acclaim, as he’s the best he’s ever been in this film. Even with what is (at first) minimal dialogue across the first act or so, Pattinson’s quiet ruminations as he works always keep the viewer guessing what it is he or his boss will do next, and when he does get to have some louder moments, he commands attention; you will miss the emergence of a performance phoenix if you dare look away.
Yet, as fantastic as Pattinson is in this movie, the screen is owned by Willem Dafoe. Somehow, Eggers manages to pull out of Dafoe not just one of the greatest performances the actor has ever given, but what is sure to be remembered as one of the greatest horror performances of all time (yeah, I said it). Dafoe has more than a few chances to shine in this movie, and not only does he take these Shakespearean monologues he’s given to their highest heights and lowest lows, one could argue that only he could ever pull off dialogue this suited to both his performance chops and the story’s setting. Willem Dafoe is phenomenal in this film, his tirades at once frightening an hilarious in their absurdity and piercing conviction. It’s a feat one has to see to believe, and I personally might name it the eighth wonder of the world if I had any say in how those wonders are chosen. The Eggers’ brothers dialogue is so uniquely suited to the time periods in which their films are set that only the finest performers could actually pull it off, and both performers do so admirably, especially the latter.
The film is also shot, scored, and edited beautifully; Mark Korven re-teaming with Robert Eggers after their success with The Witch seems like a no-brainer, but the way he weaves the sounds of ship horns departing from the island into a deeply unnerving score that covers about the first third of the film lends to the dread one feels that the two main characters may never leave this rock, and the lack of ship horns later feels as though the last hope of departure was one we never knew we were losing. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke only adds to that dread and madness by using his 4x3 aspect ratio to invoke the feeling of horror so ancient that the film could have been made in the earliest days of film itself, the grainy texture of the image giving off the look of an old classic one could take home on VHS to be transfixed by once more. The choice to shoot the film this way also forces the viewer to see the terror in the middle of the frame, for what’s outside of it is nothing of merit. Blaschke’s camera remains static most of the time, so when it moves, it moves with purpose, and we are left waiting to know to what image the frame is running, which editor Louise Ford ensures is as inescapable a feeling as possible, with multiple sequences where the viewer begins to question what is real and what is a fantasy, assisting the slow descent into madness and blissful terror which Eggers and his film crews are so adept at creating. The film isn’t 100% perfect, and does run a bit long during its finale, seemingly ending once or twice before it actually gets to its final image, but such an image is so strangely beautiful and magnificently compelling that ultimately, the film might be worse off for having ended any sooner, despite how right “a bit sooner” may feel in the moment.
The Lighthouse isn’t just another great horror film from a director in full command of his craft, but one of the best movies of 2019, full stop. Robert Eggers’ singular vision and atmospheric command are a siren call dripping through every frame, beckoning the viewer to come and be entrapped within its sea of disorientation as its two stars tumble ever downward, a vertigo-induced descent towards an uncertain yet inevitable end. It’s a uniquely disquieting, hypnotic journey into a hallucinatory madness from which one may never wish to escape despite knowing the need to, a masterclass in direction, writing, tension, cinematography, performance, editing, scoring, and just about every other element of filmmaking known to mankind. While I don’t know if I could call it a horror masterpiece myself quite yet, it is certainly very tempting to do so.
I’m giving “The Lighthouse” a 9.6/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.