Review: The Lighthouse

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe star in “The Lighthouse.”

As I sat down to write down my review for Robert Eggers’ new film “The Lighthouse,” I ended up restarting the entire review not once, but twice. I struggled with framing a review for a movie that I adore, yet I know many people will likely not enjoy.

As I sat in the theater watching the movie, a mother and her daughter were sitting to my left. Around the half-hour mark of the film, I heard the daughter whisper, “How much longer do you think is left?”

Director Robert Eggers made his directorial debut with the 2015 historical horror film “The Witch.” A true patience-testing and dread-inducing affair, the movie was heavily praised by film critics, but polarized much of the general audience, who insisted that the film was “too slow,” “hard to follow,” or “boring” for their tastes. So what does Eggers, fresh off of a critically acclaimed film that only found an audience with horror fans, do with his next project?

“Went mad he did.”

“The Lighthouse,” Eggers’ second foray as a director, is a marketing nightmare. Shot entirely on 35mm film, meaning that the entirety of the movie is in black & white and is not presented in a modern widescreen format, is already a potential detractor for a casual moviegoer. And if the technical presentation of the film wasn’t polarizing enough, the rest of the film is sure to be.

The story follows a newly hired assistant lighthouse keeper Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and the keeper Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) as they spend four weeks on a small island, working to maintain a lighthouse. 

The heft of the movie deals with the growing tensions and eventual conflict between the two men as they slowly attempt to dig into each other’s dark pasts and secrets, as well as their descension into insanity as they remain isolated with each other in such a remote location. Wake forbids Winslow from entering the room the lighthouse’s lantern is housed without explanation, so the trust needed to be established for an isolated working relationship is severely lacking from the very beginning. 

The question of sanity and perspective reliability looms over the entirety of the film, due to the conflict of power between both of the men. The viewer is constantly left questioning which character they should trust, if either are at all trustworthy. Seeing the relationship dynamic constantly shift and contort with every single interaction they share showcases one of the finest aspects of the film: the acting and character work.

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe both put on inspired performances that would sell the film alone, even if the dialogue they were given was lackluster. Luckily, it’s the opposite, with none of the dialogue coming across as forced or unbelievable. Due to the manner of english spoken throughout the film (which is set in the 1890s, and both characters speak in a sailor’s dialect) it’s an impressive feat that can’t be understated. Even if a spoken word or line is dropped by the viewer due to the dialect, the delivery carries through. Once the movie starts leaning into the madness as the tensions reach a peak, the nuance of the performances really start to shine. 

There’s a dark, morbid humor that underlies the otherwise unsettling atmosphere that permeates through the island on which the lighthouse is located, and while it is unexpected, that humor never feels jarring or out of place. There are several scenes of Winslow and Wake drinking or eating dinner together which are sprinkled with some baffling, hilarious dialogue that could only be spoken by someone with a declining mental condition who is drunk out of their mind.

“The Lighthouse” accomplishes everything it sets out to do artistically. The sound design, usage of black and white, and limited shot locations are extremely effective in enveloping the audience in a stark feeling of isolation and madness, the performance of both actors enhancing that feeling due to nuanced, unhinged outputs. 

Yet, despite all of the praise the film deserves, it shares the same problem that “The Witch” suffered from, even moreso: This is not a movie for everyone. 

I fully expect this movie to polarize audiences to a similar degree as Eggers’ first film. It’s deliberately slow-paced, and the spoken dialect and black and white cinematography are likely to turn some viewers off; but to the properly initiated, “The Lighthouse” offers the finest display of dread in filmmaking that has been seen in 2019.

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