The Lighthouse is an old school drama wherein it basically takes two actors, sticks them in an enclosed location, and has them slowly go nuts. Directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch), the film is an intense journey, becoming a slog that dares the audience to go along. It looks fantastic, presented in black and white like a relic from another time. As the characters slowly, sometimes way too slowly, descend into madness the feel is oppressive and constricting, with surprisingly, a few random gags. This is a strange, messy, slow burn that is rather compelling, for the most part.
Set in the late 19th Century, a lighthouse gets two new keepers, Thomas (Willem Dafoe) and Winslow (Robert Pattison). Winslow is the new guy who intends to make a bunch of cash on their four week stay and he keeps quiet, which irritates Thomas. Winslow starts to see visions of mermaids, monsters and corpses washing up on the shore as Thomas barks orders at him, driving Winslow to view Thomas as his mortal enemy. Their drinking, the sea, or creatures may claim them both as the never–ending storm pecks away at what little remains of their sanity.
Pattison, Batman to be and former sparkly vampire, has basically been in indie drama movie purgatory for about a decade since his sparkly vampire days, putting in one insane performance after another in things like Cosmopolis and The Lost City of Z. The Lighthouse is an absolutely bananas performance from him, going from guy who barely talks to complete raving insanity. He conveys that Winslow is losing his marbles or that Winslow just kept his crazy under wraps for a while and then let it out. Winslow starts off the movie as a non-drinker and that makes Thomas eye him warily, saying he doesn’t trust a man who doesn’t drink, but by the end Winslow is literally drinking lighthouse oil.
Dafoe as Thomas oscillates between elderly gent and complete nut job. He is the commander of Winslow and most of the time he is oppressive in his constant ordering but only views them as comrades when they eventually get drunk. At one point, Thomas is angry they have run out of provisions and they have to get into the emergency stash which it turns out is just more booze. Thomas knows that isolation breeds creeping madness, proclaiming that “the only medicine is drink.” He is the only one who is allowed to go to the top lighthouse and maintain it, calling it his wife. Eventually there is a mad jealously that comes from Winslow, fighting to get to the top like a jealous lover. There may be more up there as the film teases something potentially otherworldly at the top and the eventual reveal scene is great.
The Lighthouse is one of those films that could be construed as entirely metaphorical; the two guys could already be dead and living in a fantasy purgatory. Considering how abstract it is, that could be right. There is a blurring of lines between reality and fantasy as elder deep sea monsters are randomly rising from the depths. At one point, it is explicitly shown that Thomas has smashed the boat Winslow is trying to leave on but then a few minutes later, Thomas says that Winslow was the one who smashed the boat; since the point of view of the movie is so skewed, it’s a legit possibility that is what happened. Like Joker, it’s hard to take anything in the movie presented as actual truth, and both movies have a common thread of slowly eroding sanity that can lead to violence at any moment.
There are quite a lot of dark laughs here. It certainly wouldn’t be classified as a comedy but there are a few random yuks that are nicely unexpected and undercuts the unrelenting sense of dread. A bit when Winslow is disposing of full chamber pots into the wind has a very gross ending and Pattison’s howl of frustration is hilarious. There is a moment when Thomas goes on an insane bombastic rant wherein he bestows a deadly curse upon Winslow, all done in a single closeup of Dafoe, and it is nicely undercut by a short quip by Winslow. Thomas has a flatulence problem which is such a crude, left-field basic joke that it’s incongruous with the prestige black and white drama format.
Visually, this is a wonderfully dark looking film. The black and white cinematography makes the images pop and Eggers has some really great camera movement. By using the boxy frame from the silent movie era, it’s really unique compared to the standard widescreen image. It is methodically composed which is why the flashes of unreality have such impact. There are a lot of smash cuts to something horrifying that are effectively done for maximum impact, and the last shot of the film is haunting.
The Lighthouse is a hell of a weird trip. It scratches away at reality until the characters and the viewers don’t know what is happening. Sometimes, the old timey dialogue can be a chore to understand but that’s when the emotive performances of Dafoe and Pattinson convey what they are feeling. It certainly isn’t like anything else out there and is worth a look because it’s so disturbingly different. V
Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Robert Pattinson,
and Valeriia Karaman