Director Robert Eggers has made a name for himself as one of the new faces of contemporary horror, along with Midsommar and Hereditary director Ari Aster. Eggers returns to cinema screens with The Lighthouse, a monochromatic descent into madness that will haunt the viewer, but not necessarily for all the right reasons.
The Lighthouse is a tale of masculinity and inner demons that plays out on a tiny isle inhabited by two lighthouse keepers: Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim Winslow, and Willem Dafoe’s Thomas.
Left on the isle for a month, Winslow works hard with his head down and chain smokes his way through Thomas’s incessant farting, heavy drinking, “tall” tales of the sea and maddening gaslighting. All the while, the alluring titular building draws him towards it.
A lighthouse, normally a beacon of safety, is ironically used here as a form of torture (or phallic imagery). Winslow finds himself desperate to find out what lies inside. He obsesses over its power, whilst Thomas exposes his naked body to the light on a nightly basis.
The film is visually beautiful. Eggers forces the viewer to travel back to the 1890s, through the use of 35mm black and white film and an aspect ratio of 1.19:1. Shots of harsh rain drenching Winslow and Thomas being illuminated by candle light when spilling his tales of voyage are heightened in their effectiveness by the visual style. You feel like you are watching a piece of classic cinema.
It also adds an omnipresent edge of horror to the film. A chilling score by Mark Korven accompanies the dark and dreary visuals to hammer home the isolation Winslow likely feels. There is impending dread in almost every scene, and the ambience has been crafted to emphasise the notion that at any moment, the rug could be torn from under our feet. Yet, the only place to fall would be into the freezing sea.
Both actors deliver fine performances. Pattinson is focused and haunted as he battles with a troubled past and a highly irritating seagull. However, it is Dafoe’s cartoonish, cliché performance that stands out as he plays Thomas like an old sea captain, washed up and angry, even becoming the epitome of a sea monster in a particularly strange scene. Dafoe is given license to revel in the role, and revel he does.
Despite its technical positives, there are a number of problems with The Lighthouse, largely to do with the prose. The film is messy and confusing. It deals in metaphors and hidden meanings, not all of which are that smart.
One of the main issues with the film is that it lacks catharsis. There is no moment of clarity; the penny does not drop. It demands the viewer work just as hard as Winslow to understand the plot and deeper context of the story, a problem which Eggers had with his previous film, 2015’s critically acclaimed horror, The Witch.
By the end, you’ll feel like you have been stranded on a remote island for a month, working tirelessly in the icy rain. For some films, the pay-off is worth the work. In the case of The Lighthouse, questions and a nagging desire to understand will haunt you. Some pay-off.
Technically, The Lighthouse is an indie masterpiece. It is raw film making, delivering in every imaginable area, topped off with two performances that are anything but run of the mill. As a piece of entertainment, The Lighthouse leaves much to be desired. Fans of David Lynch may disagree, but The Lighthouse ultimately feels purposeless and empty.
VERDICT: Beautiful and mesmerising to watch, but not enough to hold it up without a concrete narrative direction. Fans of David Lynch will rejoice.
Featured image Credit – Universal / A24 Films