The Lighthouse

Director: Robert Eggers
Screenplay: Max Eggers & Robert Eggers
Stars: Willem Dafoe (Thomas Wake), Robert Pattinson (Ephraim Winslow), Valeriia Karaman (Mermaid)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2019
Country: U.S. / Canada
The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse

Director Robert Eggers’s feature debut, The Witch (2015), was a meticulously crafted, slow-burn family horror-drama set in 17th-century New England. It was a film of hushed tones and shadows and slowly accumulating dread that constantly played the line between the psychological and the supernatural. Its distressing underlying theme is how abject fear tears us apart from within and without, but what made it so effective and memorable was how tightly controlled it was, revealing with great precision only what was absolutely needed at any given time.

Eggers’s follow-up film, The Lighthouse, is nothing like that. In fact, one might suspect that Eggers’s intention in making the The Lighthouse was to ensure that no one would mistake him for a one-trick pony. Sure, there are some similarities that point to the director’s obvious predilections, particularly his use of black-and-white cinematography that evokes the orthochromatic film stock of the silent era, which reminds us of how The Witch, while shot in color, was all but monochromatic. It is also a historical film set in a place of extreme remoteness, which allows Eggers to set his isolated characters against each other. And, like The Witch, it bears the mark of the director’s fascination with the details of the historical past, which is here embodied primarily in the film’s dialogue, which sounds like every Herman Melville novel chewed up and spit out (Eggers directly cites the Moby Dick authro in the closing credits).

That is pretty much where the similarities end, though, as The Lighthouse is fundamentally hysterical, where the The Witch was resolutely measured. It plays like some kind of deranged black comedy, full of fart jokes and grotesque dream sequences and a constantly escalating sense of psychological deterioration that has nowhere to go but the deepest recesses of sheer lunacy. If The Witch was about how fear and paranoia can turn loved ones against each other, The Lighthouse is about what batshit crazy looks like in all its unbridled glory.

There are only two characters in the film—Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson)—who are tasked with maintaining the titular lighthouse on an isolated, rocky island off the coast of New England in the late 19th century. The older Thomas is the seasoned veteran in charge, while the younger Ephraim is new to the job (we learn later that he used to be a timberman). They are, in every sense of the word, complete opposites, particularly in the way the grizzled, salty older lightkeeper likes to constantly talk and drink while Ephraim refuses to partake of alcohol and tries to keep to himself. Ephraim is a man of few words, while Thomas is a man of many (many of which are genuinely unintelligible, to boot).

Thomas begins bullying Ephraim by giving him more and more demanding, physically onerous, and demeaning tasks (like hauling huge cans of kerosene and emptying the chamber pots) while he reserves for himself the duty of maintaining the light at night. Their placement at the lighthouse is only supposed to last four weeks, but when an enormous storm hits the island and the relief ship does not arrive, they realize that they could be stuck there for an indeterminate period of time with dwindling rations (but plenty of alcohol). Things go from weird to weirder as the two men begin to come apart, their fragile psychological states increasingly ravaged by both massive quantities of booze and the stress of extreme isolation. We sense that things will constantly go from bad to worse—and they do—and if the film has a virtue, it is that Eggers and his brother Max, with whom he co-wrote the screenplay, make the scenarios consistently surprising and shocking.

However, while The Lighthouse is a film of extremely admirable parts, it doesn’t add up to a particularly great whole. Technically, the film is a marvel, as the cinematography by Jarin Blaschke (who also shot The Witch) evokes the particular look of primitive cinema as funneled through a fever dream (he shot on actual filmstock in the early synchronized sound aspect ratio of 1.19:1, which in and of itself makes the film feel deliberately cramped and uncomfortable). The production design is also impressive; the lighthouse itself becomes a kind of destructive beacon luring the two men into conflict from which they have no hope of emerging. And that, of course, brings us to the two central performances, which are highly entertaining if never particularly convincing. Dafoe chews everything him while Pattinson is all coiled repression and secrecy, which puts them into inherent conflict. Both men speak in ancient slang with bizarre accents that are apparently true to the historical period and area (Eggers is a stickler for such details), which provides its own perverse entertainment.

Yet, the film’s attempts at immersion are hindered by the fact that neither character is particularly compelling, or interesting, or likeable. The film’s drama crashes on the rocky shoals of Thomas and Ephraim’s obvious constructedness; they are not quite caricatures, but they are close enough so that they keep us at an emotional distance, where we’re unable to fully lose ourselves in their spiraling madness and eventual violence. The film is fascinating and perverse and never boring, but it’s not really compelling either because it remains abstract and theoretical and too obviously staged. There is much to admire about it, particularly its technical accomplishments, but it fails to deliver the emotional gut-punch needed to make its unique psychological horrors work as more than just twisted ideas.

Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (2.5)

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