Beautiful, engrossing, and ultimately distressing, The Lighthouse tells a tale of two men’s isolation and descent into madness. Oh, mermaids and shifty seabirds, too.
IMDB Synopsis: The hypnotic and hallucinatory tale of two lighthouse keepers on a remote and mysterious New England island in the 1890s.
The Lighthouse, to put it lightly, is a cinematic trip. The film—much like its characters—is stripped of extraneousness, is extremely intimate, and equally disquieting. Shot in 35mm black and white and presented in Academy ratio (1.33:1), director Robert Eggers presents a sparse, claustrophobic, and intimate study of madness, desire, and isolation. Mixed with juxtaposing sounds— the booming power of a storm, hypnotic foghorn blasts, and the quiet of desolation—The Lighthouse is as jarring as it is dazzling; as rugged as it is beautiful.
The film features two lighthouse keepers (or wickies) stationed on a remote and mysterious island in 1890s-era New England. The inexperienced Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and weathered Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) are tasked with a one month stay tending to the beacon. If the movie seems a little light on plot, that’s by design as Eggers isn’t telling a story of upkeep, rather showing one man’s descent into deliriousness, while portraying another man’s obsession with power. The various scenes repeat (dinner, chores, sleeping, dreaming, et al), so as the four weeks progress, and we see snippets of young Winslow relegated to the demeaning role of laborer/housekeeper while Wake barks orders and guards the lighthouse lamp with a fervent obsession not seen since Gollum.
The first half of the movie is permeated by Winslow’s growing resentment towards Wake—for treating him like an indentured servant, for keeping him from the light, for holding his employment over his head. At the same time, we see the edges beginning to fray as Pattinson‘s checkered past begins to haunt him, visions of a mermaid taunt him, and the isolation of the island tears at him. Meanwhile, Wake locks himself in the lighthouse lamp room and seems to merge with (or commune or morph or become) some sort of fantastical octopus.
As the four week term stretches into five (or more) due to a storm ravaging the island and its surrounding waters, Winslow’s descent into madness ratchets up. With minimal food and no water, the duo’s is fueled by alcohol, dug up from Wake’s stash of “emergency supplies.” Here we see Winslow and Wake’s resentment for, and dependence upon one another. One scene they are deliriously drunk and regaling one another with song and dance, and the next are at each other’s throat. The film juxtaposes moments of extreme tension with scenes of extreme vivaciousness (and drunkenness) as the duo barrel toward a violent ending bathed in phantasmagoria.
The Lighthouse is anchored by the two profoundly dedicated performances from Dafoe and Pattinson (the only actors), whose commitment madness, tenderness, and delirium are wholly invested. Coupled with Egger‘s dedication to detail of the time period—from the dialogue to the wardrobe—paints a believable and uniquely fantastical picture. Defying genre categorization, The Lighthouse is all at once terrifying, engrossing, and beautiful, and should be considered a successful follow up for director Robert Eggers.
Highlights: The sound mixing is incredible, especially during the second half. Pattinson‘s film-length fight with seabirds. Dafoe‘s monologue that equates to hexing Pattinson for the aforementioned seabird fight.
MVP: While both actors are impressive, Willem Dafoe‘s portrayal of a weathered and mad lighthouse keeper who spouts crazed monologues and displays power dynamics via flatulence takes the top spot. Kind of a 1A and 1B showing from the two.
Should you see it: It’s definitely not for everyone, but any artistic and cinematic endeavor made with this much care and attention to detail is worthwhile. 8/10.
Director: Robert Eggers
Studio: A24 // Original release date: October 18, 2019