Four years after his debut feature film “The Witch,” writer/director Robert Eggers has returned with another unique horror film set in pre-20th century New England.
Set entirely on a tiny remote island off the coast of Maine in the 1890s, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe star in “The Lighthouse”, portraying two lighthouse keepers living in complete isolation amidst stark sea conditions.
Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson) is new to the field of lighthouse keeping, drifting from job to job and not eager to speak unless when spoken to. Thomas Wake (Dafoe) on the other hand is an old salt with a history of keeping lighthouses — a man seemingly always on the verge of sharing a ghost story or sea monster tale.
Winslow and Wake are at odds with each other for most of the film. Winslow is angered by how he’s bossed around by Wake and is desperate to go up and maintain the light in the house that Wake prevents him from seeing, giving the young man a constant sense of curiosity and frustration.
Bearing witness to Pattinson and Dafoe’s constant bickering and sparring is a true cinematic treat. Both actors are at the top of their game and excel at capturing the misery of being in a miserable location with someone you despise.
Few actors have captured accents and dialects as sharply as these two men do. The filmmakers decided to use English subtitles due to their classic coastal dialogue, fitting of a pirate.
Pattinson has struggled to prove he is capable of handling a serious role, given the industry infamy of the “Twilight” saga. After starring in several independent films attempting to make a dramatic breakout, Pattinson has found his niche in “The Lighthouse,” giving a mesmerizing performance that captures the maddening horrors of isolation and anger.
After this film, expect to see Pattinson as a leading dramatic actor in several demanding films, not just in “The Batman” — a highly anticipated reboot that will feature him as Bruce Wayne/Batman.
Dafoe has been one of the greatest actors alive for quite some time and he brings all of his experience and wisdom as an actor into this performance. Dafoe’s character is exactly what you’d envision for a lighthouse keeper in the 1890s without being a cliche. His richness and precision in his movements, wording and expression is unmatched. Dafoe delivers one of his absolute best performances.
As the two men grow to rival each other and battle for power over the lighthouse, Ephraim slowly descends into madness, which is where the fantasy elements slowly arise. Seeing the film through Ephraim’s point of view allows us to capture what’s going through his fragile mind explicitly and is where Pattinson shines the most.
Few modern directors have such precise attention to detail as Eggers, which shines in every aspect of his style. Not only do he and his co-writer/brother Max Eggers write dialogue based on actual accounts of fishermen and lighthouse keepers from the 1890s, but the production design that was built from scratch feels like a historical site. The lighthouse crafted by the production team is filled with character — the tower a setting that feels and looks like a prison.
Visually, “The Lighthouse” is a monumental achievement. Shot in stunning black-and-white and a 1.19:1 aspect ratio that gives it a squarish frame, this feels like a film made in the early 1900s, yet with the style and depth of a modern artist.
While at times a bit dark to make out, there are images in “The Lighthouse” that are impossible to turn away from. The level of detail Eggers given to this film — whether it be the sound of seagulls squawking, the ominous foghorn constantly blowing in the distance or the tools used to cook and move coal — it’s clear that this is a filmmaker who wants his audience to be transported and forget their watching a movie, which is evident in every single frame of the film.
While a treat for the senses, “The Lighthouse” struggles to grip us and shake us. Despite involving two unhinged, loose cannons of characters and fictional horror elements, there isn't a scene in the film that gets your heart beating. Even though it strives to be focused on the horrors of mental breakdowns due to isolation, having a sense of danger or terror lingering throughout the film would have complemented its ominous look and stark style. This is a film with all the ingredients for suspense, yet never utilizes it and instead takes its time to slowly ascend into its trippy conclusion.
Despite not having the level of tension to capture audiences emotionally, “The Lighthouse” is a very unique film with an ingenious story. Alluding to Greek mythology, the tension between Winslow and Wake is used to capture the ongoing fascination of power-struggles between men and is a poignant testament to the Greek figures Prometheus and Proteus.
Eggers is able to connect his film to his inspirations without being blatantly obvious and provides us with a desire to analyze their purposes. This is a director who, after only making two films, is a proven visionary whose future films I am desperately waiting to behold.
Even though you won’t be gripped to the edge of your seat, there’s something about “The Lighthouse” that sticks with you and hides in the back of your mind. Eggers’ artistic and daring style subtly creeps up and refuses to leave, giving us a visionary work of art that stands out as one of the most ambitious films of 2019.
Final Grade: A
Dominic LeRose is a writer for The Daily Cardinal. To read more of his work, click here.