DIRECTOR: Robert Eggers
CAST: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe, Valeriia Karaman
RUNNING TIME: 110 mins
BASICALLY…: Two isolated lighthouse keepers (Pattinson and Dafoe) find their composure, and sanity, slowly slipping away…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
This review is of the cut shown at the BFI London Film Festival in October 2019 – the UK release date is currently listed for January 31st 2020.
At once both a nightmarish psychological horror and a Harold Pinter-esque comedy-drama, The Lighthouse – director and co-writer Robert Eggers’ follow-up to the critically-acclaimed The Witch – is not even close to being a sophomore slump. In fact, it sets the filmmaker as someone with a fierce voice to share which should not be overlooked, even if things become so bleak and disturbing that you cannot bring yourself to keep watching.
It’s a movie that can be described so easily – two lighthouse keepers in the late 19th century (Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim and Willem Dafoe’s Thomas), left alone during a four-week stint on a remote New England island, become more and more aggravated by each other – yet the movie is anything but simple. Shot in stunning 35mm black-and-white and presented in a claustrophobic 1.19:1 aspect ratio, Eggers’ film is an expressionist approach to the kitchen-skin drama, albeit with the kitchen sink replaced by leaky roofs, creaky beds, and an apparently endless supply of booze.
Starting off almost completely silently – the dialogue, taking heavy inspiration from the old-fashioned works of Herman Melville, comes in roughly ten or so minutes in – we immediately get a sense of the two characters we are about to spend the rest of the movie with. Ephraim, played by Pattinson, is somewhat reserved, eager to do the job at hand but also not let its constant pressures get the better of him; meanwhile, Thomas (Dafoe) is a much more rugged figure, slobbish in his demeanour – from his bushy beard to his habit of farting at every opportunity – but stern and authoritative. They are polar opposites, and in true Pinter fashion it doesn’t take long for their differing personalities to clash, often when both are completely wasted after nights of binge-drinking. Throughout, we also get to learn a bit more about their pasts, what drove them to accept this four-week stint in the first place, and why they don’t simply come to a reasonable understanding with each other; Eggers and his co-writer brother Max Eggers really hone in on the characters’ flaws and underlying demons as the source for many of the film’s unhinged moments, leaving you unsure of who to side with (if at all) as their arguments become louder and more unnerving, and always nervous that at any moment, their civility will shatter into a million pieces and cause things to get uglier than they already are.
As he did with The Witch, Eggers offers no easy ways out here, forcing you to endure all the terrible things that these two characters say and do to each other, or even other things that happen to be in their way – you’ll wince at the outcome of a particular seagull, which Dafoe’s character says contains the souls of dead sailors and is thus bad luck to do anything to them, and you’ll feel as much anger as you do fear when Dafoe chastises Pattinson for neglecting his duties, despite the younger keeper clearly working hard to keep things in top condition. So much of that comes from the sheer powerhouse performances of both Pattinson and Dafoe, both of whom have never been so fiercely committed to a role, particularly Pattinson who combines the escalating madness of Jack Nicholson in The Shining with the quiet menace (and bushy moustache) of There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview to deliver an absolutely outstanding turn, perhaps the most impressive yet of his career. From his steely gaze to his maniacal drunken outbursts, Pattinson simply rocks in this movie, and it has to be said that I am anticipating his upcoming turn as Batman even more now, because if this is the furthest that this actor is willing to go for a movie role, then who know what he’ll do to bring the latest depiction of the Caped Crusader to life.
This is also easily one of the most gorgeously-shot horror movies in years, with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke – another holdover from The Witch – making effective use of the boxed-in aspect ratio and the bleak black-and-white colour scheme (or lack thereof) to deliver crisp and delicate imagery that should be a shoo-in for several cinematography categories this upcoming awards season. Nearly every shot in this movie is like out of a photography catalogue, with the lighting being used so beautifully to give us shadows and silhouettes that illuminate the darkest of scenes, and when the movie gets weirder – oh, so fascinatingly weirder – as it starts to incorporate more fantastical imagery such as mermaids and ominous tentacles, the shots become more and more ambitious, with Blaschke more than up to the task of keeping things vague but also going as out-there as he possibly can.
There are things about this movie that will stay with you long after the movie wraps up, whether it’s some of the incredibly creepy scenes of surreal Eraserhead-style imagery or the intense-as-all-hell two lead performances, and it’s unlikely you’ll emerge from The Lighthouse the same person that you were going into it. With this movie, Robert Eggers manages to top The Witch with something even more terrifying – and keep in mind, that movie had the scariest goat in movie history – and an experience you won’t be sure what to make of in the moment, but on reflection will be glad to have gone through.
SO, TO SUM UP…
The Lighthouse positions director and co-writer Robert Eggers as a filmmaker with a unique voice that cannot be overlooked, incorporating some absolutely stunning black-and-white cinematography and two utterly compelling lead performances by Willem Dafoe and especially Robert Pattinson into a psychological horror that’ll make you want to sleep with the light on.