The Lighthouse REVIEW – A Haunting and Surreal Descent into Madness

The Lighthouse is a marvel of filmmaking and outstanding acting.

The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse

Robert Eggers made quite a first impression with his debut film, The Witch, four years ago. A straightforward yet unconventional horror tale, the film shares a fair bit of similarities with his newest piece, The Lighthouse, to the point that I consider them spiritual siblings. There are obvious differences too, ones that make The Lighthouse not nearly as accessible or as easy to follow as The Witch.

It’s presented in black and white, dialogue can occasionally be tough to decipher, and there’s little else besides a constant, blaring foghorn for a musical score. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but it’s definitely a demonstration of Eggers and his two stars, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe, firing on all cylinders to create a film unlike any other this year, or even this decade.

Set in the 1890s, the film tells the story of Winslow (Pattinson) and Thomas (Dafoe), two lighthouse keepers stuck working together on a remote New England island. Thomas has been tending to this particular lighthouse for quite some time, while Winslow, seeking work, is new to the job. The labor is grueling, the weather is rough, the living quarters are cramped and unsanitary, and it’ll be a few weeks before relief arrives and the two can get off the miserable rock. This would be quite an ordeal for even the best of friends, but it’s obvious right off the bat that Winslow and Thomas aren’t going to get along especially well.

Thomas is the textbook definition of an old, weathered, salty sea dog, complete with a grizzled beard and a lame, limping leg. A former seaman, he often barks unreasonable orders at Winslow and berates him for shoddy work, while doing little to no work himself outside of cooking them supper every night. Winslow resents the old man for his constant hardass routine, but the younger lad, as Thomas calls him, much to Winslow’s annoyance, seems hostile right off the bat. In the first couple weeks, he remains guarded and silent, refusing to take part in Thomas’ nightly toasts or share much of anything about himself. It becomes clear that the two men are keeping secrets from one another, like what brought the two of them here, their past lives, what happened to Thomas’ last helper, and even, possibly, their real names.

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Much like The Witch, The Lighthouse is a story about people slowly descending into hysteria, and eventually, being gripped tightly by paranoia and madness. The former is from the perspective of a sizeable family out in the wilderness, but this film is far more contained, and set in a much more isolated and hostile location. It’s also a much slower burn than The Witch was, and figuring out what exactly is going on or where it’s all headed is a bit more difficult. The men are haunted by delusions and disturbing sights, and it’s never obvious whether these things are hallucinatory or not. As panic, cabin fever, and the men’s resentment towards each other continues to build, so too does the pacing and atmosphere of the film, until it ramps up to a manic and booming crescendo; one louder and more powerful than the deafening foghorn or the roaring waves crashing against the shore.

There’s an endless amount of praise that needs to be heaped onto Pattinson and Dafoe. Their performances are absolutely tremendous – two insanely talented, off-kilter actors allowed to be at their most extreme. Winslow at one point describes Thomas as a parody of Captain Ahab, and that’s exactly what Dafoe seems to be reaching for: an exaggerated version of the classic sea captain, drunkenly singing songs or articulating soliloquies. Pattinson, on the other hand, keeps his head down and stays reserved for as long as he can, before giving a fully committed, extremely physical performance that matches Dafoe’s infamous, manic theatricality, and even threatens to surpass it. The two are a sight to behold, both turning in some of, if not their very best work.

Eggers, along with his brother, Max, who helped write the script, are both equally as committed as their two actors. The Lighthouse was filmed on location in Nova Scotia under significantly harsh weather conditions like freezing temperatures, pounding rain, and intense winds. To achieve the film’s unique look, made to resemble early photography, the aspect ratio is 1.19:1, which basically makes it square, rather than the wide rectangle look we’re accustomed to in movies. The film has also been run through a custom cyan filter to emulate the appearance of orthochromatic film from the late 19th century. The story takes inspiration from a real incident called “The Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy”, as well as seafaring literary classics, such as the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Sarah Orne Jewett, who interviewed old sailors and farmers for her stories set on the Eastern seaboard. The film’s dialogue and the actors’ dialects, just like The Witch’s, is as period-accurate as possible with most of it coming from real-life journals of lighthouse keepers and sailors.

All of these elements combine for an incredibly authentic and unique viewing experience, and it’s one that you’ll either be completely enthralled or entirely perplexed by. The Lighthouse’s surreal and consistently vague method of telling the tale of two unfortunate men going quite mad together might frustrate some viewers, or even underwhelm them. I myself am still puzzling out what exactly it is I just saw and what it all might have meant. When asked to describe his movie, Eggers uses the same sentence in every interview: “Nothing good can happen when two men are trapped alone in a giant phallus.” If I had to sum it up, I prefer to use one of Thomas’ cryptic phrases to Winslow: “It’s bad luck to kill a seabird.” You’ll see what he means.

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The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse is a marvel of filmmaking and outstanding acting, but its hallucinatory and unorthodox approach may alienate some viewers.