‘The Lighthouse’ (2019) Review

the lighthouse_dafoe and pattinson

Insanity looms when the routine never changes.

Such is the setting of Robert Eggers’ latest and darkly fantastical title, The Lighthouse. An unflinching exploration of forced proximity, imperfect personal motivation, and the “wilderness” of seclusion. Much akin to Samuel Beckett’s landmark work, Waiting for Gadot, we are thrust into an orbit of routine, repetition, and the visceral mania that ensues. Just like Gadot, Eggers’ title gifts us an endless cycle of absurd situations and exaggerated humanism through the tales of characters that feel as much real as they do outside our normal paradigm. But this is not a gripping drama or macabre thriller–it’s a folk tale; a cautionary fable told through the lens of centuries old storytelling. What is the caution? That even in absurd circumstances, the human spirit is both a simple and fractured thing that makes us do weird stuff … even to our own downfall.

We find ourselves isolated on a remote island in 1890’s New England. Thomas Wake and Ephraim Winslow the lone inhabitants, and keepers of the lighthouse on shore. What unfolds is a hypnotic tale of daily tedious, back-breaking work growing resentment between the two shore-men. The mundane, methodical, and unchanging prove to be unsettling to the deepest degree.  Wake, an enthralling performance of all-encompassing energy brought forth by Willem Dafoe, is the elder, career lighthouse keeper. Through his absurd sense of lyrical-folklore, demanding attention to duty, and keen fondness of the drink, we find his unapologetic presence serving as sandpaper on the skin to his counterpart. Winslow, an emotional powerhouse performance from Robert Pattinson, is new to the work, and perhaps typical of many young, strapping (and talented?) new bodies–he sets his sights on achieving it all. Though certainly lost and aimless, his slow descent into hallucinatory mania sets the stage for his unyielding–and albeit absurd–pursuit of overthrowing his elder shore-man. Of course, this all takes place in between bouts of joint drunken stupor and sharing tales of each other’s past in good faith. But true as it seems, the darker twists season every ounce of visual storytelling, key interaction, and silent discovery.  

The real champion of the whole experience is the framing itself.  Shot entirely on 35mm black-and-white Double-X 5222 film; the aspect ratio and overall palette gives a unique visual experience we have not seen in quite some time. Quite literally, the actual framing shot is confined to a square rather than the full, widespread screen-filling picture of which we have grown accustomed. 

From the first frame we are instantly transported into an old photograph–a long lost scrapbook mapping the history of shore-man in thankless, unglamorous jobs. Additionally, the rigid frame lends a thick layer of storytelling literally influencing each moment of the film. We are never released from the feeling of isolation; from being forced into the strict confines of a space that cannot comfortably accommodate such attention. And that serves as the underlying current of it all. Our feral principal characters living on top of each other in the quarters that hardly qualify as anything livable; leaving all inhabitants with a sense of growing claustrophobia … including we the viewers. To say executing such a framing device in the wake of 2019 multiplex, superhero laden cinema is bold would be the understatement of the year. A master stroke from Eggers.

The Lighthouse proves to be a landmark achievement as it presents itself as an impeccable marriage of stripped-down, intentional visuals and all-in, swelling performances from a stereotypical “two-hand” title. Not so much a world you want to live in, or even revisit on numerous occasions–but you do not necessarily wish to leave. 

Dafoe has built a career of selecting bold, unkempt characters living on the fringes of society or even sanity. To a point now that we endearingly declare him the patron saint of leading men misfits. His turn as Thomas Wake is exactly the sort of role we have come to expect from his diverse filmography while at the same time serving as the highpoint of an already staggering run this decade. Dafoe executes Wake’s accent with enough elaboration that we comfortably snicker at the deployment of certain words, but never suspend disbelief to a point that we fail to accept it as actual. His gruff demeanor, and towering presence fill each frame to a point of appropriate alienation. We dwell in the tightly confined space of this world and are forced to endure a Thomas Wake that demands attention, obedience, unapologetic bodily functions, and drunken camaraderie. From the bristled vocal tone to the way he packs-and-lights his pipe to the patented Dafoe bulgy eyes, we have a larger than life character that feels every bit authentic. And perhaps grabbing with it another Oscar nomination.

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Pattinson is equally brilliant as the prideful but deeply unsettled Ephraim Winslow. Through a sea-worthy mustache and his signature enigmatic indie movie charm, we are rewarded with a display of nuanced hallucination and imbalanced sanity that always seems to be teetering towards the edge. Pattinson’s turn as Winslow serves as the lens of which we view the film. But it becomes clear early on that we may not entirely trust the vantage of which we are confined. A character of dark past transgressions and deeply confused ambition, Pattinson brings the necessary human element to a slightly exaggerated fable. Not to mention his mermaid hallucinations (yes, you read that right). We dip into his anxiety, distaste for the work, and desire for something greater in the same sense of a subtly devastating Jeff Buckley song. Much akin to the lyrics of…

I lost myself on a cool damp night
I gave myself in that misty light
Was hypnotized by a strange delight…
When I think more than I want to think
I do things I never should do
I drink much more that I ought to drink…
Lilac wine is sweet and heady where’s my love?
Lilac wine, I feel unsteady, where’s my love?
Listen to me, why is everything so hazy?
Isn’t that she, or am I just going crazy, dear?… 

Culminating in a scene of his unsettling confession leading to the devious pursuit of his “great” achievement, we are stuck by Pattinson’s ability to be the out of sorts everyman despite the outrageous circumstances of which his character imbibes. Through a twisted performance that may seem on the service to be outside the normal scope of trajectory, we finally realize his is the voice of the audience. The tale of which we are to take caution. And the slow build to Winslow’s peak is delivered in a way that might not have been adequately captured by another outside of our beloved R-Patt.

Narratively, the film lacks complexity but that may, in fact, be precisely the point. The Eggers brothers have crafted a story that intentionally defies dense plot and instead blooms in the thick of outrageous, flawed characters swimming in waters of age-old adages:

  • Pride cometh before the fall.
  • We cannot wear two masks forever.
  • Seclusion is damaging.
  • Haunting lineage.
  • Never kill a seabird.

But of course, each of them deliciously twisted because it’s Robbert Eggers and what more could we expect? That, in and of itself, packs enough of an uncanny, immersive experience that we readily journey though a simplistic story. Among the many things The Lighthouse accomplishes, it serves as a testament that some kitschy universities remain that for a reason, and if you are serving them up through the lens of a subverted folktale led by the distinct likenesses of Dafoe and Pattinson the audience will unquestionably follow without complaint.

As for innovative filmmaking in the 21st Century, it is quite possible the code has been cracked and the secret is regression. A clear pathway to innovation paved through refreshingly visceral experiences that are not found in CGI technology or IP-driven sagas. At least with The Lighthouse we feast on a visually hypnotic display that feels more inherently familiar than most anything this year has served. Yet, it carries a unique enough immersion that perhaps we cannot help but savor the artistic achievement that feels like a reinvented take a high-society dining. In the wake of dwindling box office totals, caped crusaders owning the spotlight, and the ever paranoid discussions of, “What does this mean for the future of movie going?”, Eggers and his old soul appreciation of the twisted folklore of yesteryear certainly seems to have found a way to both make the stories that speak to him while potentially reinvigorating the medium and industry themselves. And he is doing so by regressing back to tools of the trade that have been around for decades.

Simplistic as the scope may be, The Lighthouse is the tipping point of this season of cinema. A rare outlier of excellence in production and performance. Undoubtedly among the year’s best but still free from the stench of “prestige Oscar bait”; enveloping for all the right reasons but still absurd enough to not fall victim of being taken too seriously; and a top-drawer concoction of lived-in history and twisted allegory. This one has staying power, but in a way we have not seen since Phantom Thread.

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Robert Eggers is not an auteur. He has not made enough films for that yet. But his work boasts distinct feel. He is interested in grappling with the metaphysical and planting it in the ground; his language is visual; and he is keenly aware of the chilling symbolism and weight an animal may bring to the narrative. Simply put, we cannot place Eggers in a box–his artistic inclinations defy mere genre. But what we can say is in the year of our Lord 2019, after two impeccably conceived and brilliantly different films, Eggers is a storyteller hearkening back to the earliest days of American lineage. He has found a way to bring folklore to the forefront and bended it in a way that makes timely fables into more than mere cautionary tales … They become absurdist allegories equally engrossing as they are fantastically shot. It would be a shame to label him the great conceiver of horror–though that may be an honorable moniker. In fact, a more apt comparison may be to recognize his trajectory is headed for the likes of Edgar Allen Poe … but with a camera and film.

We salute Eggers because he has found life in the folk tales of ages past and captures them on film through uncanny performances, unmatched attention to detail, meticulously produced historical design, with a unique vision for blending off-kilter entertainment and allegory that speaks to the universality of human imperfection. And, of course, perfectly placed flatulence.

The Lighthouse remains darkly silly as it grabs you by the throat, slowly tightening its grip but in a way that brings a seductive smile to your face as you gasp for breath. Unsettling but absolutely wonderful in every way. Expect to see it earn a spot at the big kids table come awards season.

And remember, if you spill your beans make sure it’s to a person you can trust. Or it will all go to hell.