The Lighthouse Review

Robert Eggers smashed onto the indie scene with his 2015 Sundance hit The Witch. A highly stylized, theatrical film with dialogue drawn from the 17th century and a diabolic edge, the film made ten times its budget and garnered carte blanche for his follow up film. In the interim, iconic actor Willem Dafoe approached Eggers and said he’s do anything the director wrote. Thus was born The Lighthouse, an acerbic, haunting film of maritime madness and mayhem.

Shot in black and white Kodak film stock in academy ratio, there are moments that feel like some lost documentary from a century ago. The same out-of-place characteristics of The Witch appear here as well, with dialogue drawn from Herman Melville and other chroniclers of North Atlantic Seamen. Shot in Nova Scotia Canada, the rocky settings and stunningly constructed lighthouse set easily evokes some mythological purgatory where men go to be abandoned for their sins.

Dafoe plays the lighthouse keeper, or “wickie”, keeper of the flame and tasked with ensuring the safety of those sailing around this treacherous outcrop. He’s joined on his tour of duty by an assistant (Robert Pattinson) who first appears to be stiff backed and a stickler for the rules, a far cry from the ramshackle air of his salty master.

From here develops a pattern of descent, as the environment quickly becomes more hostile while the partners do the same. As things become more and more intolerable, the stakes become higher and conditions stranger and more horrifying, leading in directions that are as troubling as they are bizarre.

The language is as thick as the fog that surrounds the lighthouse, and both actors bring Shakespearean precision to the beautifully ornate script. Dafoe’s cantankerous caretaker is delicious, drawing from every stereotypical washed-up seamen yet somehow making it completely his own. It’s a truly illuminating role, and demonstrates yet again what a treasure this man is.

Pattinson, meanwhile, yet again gives attention to fact that this former sparkly Vampire has quickly become one of the most fascinating and capable actors of his generation. The accent and wild airs he portrays here are downright delicious, reminding in bursts of the kind of character that Daniel Day-Lewis delivered in There Will Be Blood.

The film is far more a mood and character piece than deep narrative drive, and it certainly takes its time to go anywhere it wishes to. In some ways, you feel as trapped in the world of The Lighthouse as the men within, sharing in their own uncertainties and discomfort as conditions worsen and the barometer drops. There’s a brooding sense of doom throughout that gives the film a sinister edge, and everything from the lascivious predilections of the stranded men to the bleak meals that attempt to keep them alive serve to make things look more and more miserable.

Yet the film itself is richly comedic, the melancholy buttressed by splashes of surreal silliness. The end result is a mythic film that feels primordial, as if the forces of nature and existence itself are being bent in what transpires to these men. The director’s vision, with a script co-written by Max Eggers, draws a majestic lunacy, with lines of dialogue as finely carved as scrimshaw and images as turbulent as an Atlantic storm.

This is a muddy, murky, melancholic film that somehow is eminently hilarious and entertaining equal measure. It’s a strange beast this one, one with many arms entangling the audience and pulling it in to taste. You can practically smell the salt in the air while watching, breathing in the heavy air, swept up in the cadence and musicality of the dialogue so that you feel like you’re crew aboard this boat of despair.

What the The Lighthouse lacks is an ability to fully surprise. After The Witch we’ve come to expect this kind of wonder, and the excellent herein shouldn’t be held against it as we get some more of the same. What the film lacks in complete shock for those schooled on the previous film will nonetheless revel in all that is on offer, with scenes, images and performances not soon forgotten.

The Lighthouse douses us with its sickly brine, with cruelty and comeuppance the catch of the day. Pattinson and Dafoe form a dream pair, perfectly placed to provide the right mixture of gravitas and goofiness. Perverse and preposterous, this brilliant film shines brightly, calling out with its haunting bellow to audiences brave or foolhardy to plunge into the depths of this dastardly, primal tale.

/Film Rating: 9 out of 10

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About the Author

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor of ThatShelf.com, Features Editor at DTK Magazine and a critic for HighDefDigest.