In the 1890s, two men – Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) – arrive at a remote and isolated New England island so that they can tend to the lighthouse for the following five weeks, until their relief arrives, but as they are cut off from all other human contact and grow increasingly aggravated by each other’s behaviour, secrets are soon brought to light and the lighthouse keepers slowly begin to lose their grip on their sanity as they are swept up in superstition, lust, anger, and paranoia.
Much like Parasite and Jojo Rabbit, this is another one of those pesky films that I, along with many others I’m sure, have been hearing about for almost a year now, listening to various reviewers on social media sing its praises but with nary a local screening to be found – well, it hasn’t previously been shown anywhere near me, that’s for sure. But luckily, my local cinema generously decided to put this film on for a single showing (jeez, why hasn’t this film been given a proper release? One showing? That’s not right) so of course I went down to see what all the fuss was about, being well aware of the positive reception that it’s been getting and feeling very optimistic about it as Robert Eggers’ The Witch was a real find of 2016, one that immediately made him an emerging name in the horror genre to take notice of.
And thankfully, in this case, the wait was well worth it because, while it’s not perfect, I found The Lighthouse to be a truly remarkable, intriguingly designed film whose creepy, unsettling atmosphere I just lapped up.
The first thing that’s immediately apparent that the film has going for it is its cinematography and overall style; effectively filmed in 35mm black and white and with a 1. 19:1 aspect ratio, the film appears to pay homage to the silent films of the 1920s and German expressionism, perhaps emulating the work of directors like F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang, and straight from the off, we can see that this film could comfortably have existed during the early days of cinema due to its striking imagery (which includes an ideal early shot of the two characters looking directly towards the audience as well as various shots of single eyes and a particular way in which certain characters scream), as well as its music and general ambience. Seeing as how Eggers will helm the upcoming adaptation of Nosferatu, it’s clear that he has an affinity for this particular period of cinema and through his capable, well honed direction (which he so impressively demonstrated with his feature film The Witch), both he and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke do a wonderful job in giving the film a very striking and visually appealing look and establishing and maintaining a tangible feeling of increasing horror and dread that goes a long way in making The Lighthouse such a mesmerising and hypnotic experience.
Story wise, The Lighthouse follows a similar narrative path to The Witch in that it focuses on a small group of characters and has them slowly succumbing to paranoia, suspicion and madness due to being in an isolated location and like that film, it is based on folklore (and Greek mythology, in this case) and makes use of period specific dialogue; this is a film that will be open to multiple interpretations and there’s surely plenty to analyse, considering all the motifs and classical allusions, and at the end of the day, Robert Eggers and his brother Max have penned something that is a cut above your average horror/thriller/drama as it is well researched and focuses more on character development and building suspense than cheap jump scares and tired, unoriginal storytelling.
The film also benefits from some excellent music and praiseworthy sound design; Mark Korven’s score expertly builds up a palpable atmosphere of horror, uncertainty and dread (plus, the use of A.L. Lloyd’s “Doodle Let Me Go” works perfectly when heard over the closing credits), the use of a constantly blaring foghorn lends plenty of menace to proceedings, and the sound design is laudable because all the creaking wood, the endless barrage of rain and wind, and the blood curdling screaming and squawking really sucks the viewer into the claustrophobic environment and keeps us hooked throughout.
As the only performers of the piece (more or less), the film is maintained by the performances of Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe and they definitely don’t disappoint as they both give very strong performances that help to make the film so brilliant. Pattinson’s character Ephraim starts off as the strong but silent type, perhaps a little bit naive and with a belief in sticking to the rules, but as the film progresses, he slowly begins to lose his mind and as it’s revealed that he’s more than what he appears, he becomes increasingly unhinged and unpredictable and Pattinson takes all of this on brilliantly, demonstrating a rugged and silent demeanor to start off with but then really losing himself in the craziness and dangerous nature of the character further down the line. But while Pattinson puts in a great performance, I’d have to say that I enjoyed Willem Dafoe’s part in this even more; playing the quintessential “craggy old salt”, Dafoe really loses himself in his role here and looks like he’s really relishing the chance to show off the quirkiness and madness of the character: barking orders at his younger employee, drinking like a fish, warning of all the ominous superstitions, and refusing Winslow to come anywhere near “his” light, for unknown reasons. With a particularly appealing, period authentic accent, Dafoe is just something to behold and his character can be oddly funny (I couldn’t help smiling during his “It was YEEEEEEE!” speech towards the end) but also mysterious and sinister at the same time. The two actors work well together and it’s clear that the roles are ideally casted.
As for the film’s flaws, I’d have to say that it didn’t manage to maintain my attention for the entire duration as, after its near perfect first half, it winds up running out of steam somewhat and it becomes clear that there isn’t too much in the way of story to be found and the film ends up repeating itself quite a bit. And as the actors talk in period authentic accents, using dialogue that was commonplace at the time (it was based on the works of Herman Melville and the journals of lighthouse keepers of the time), it can be difficult to accurately gauge just what’s being said and a few lines and some important information is bound to fall by the wayside during the course of the feature.