THE LIGHTHOUSE (directed by Robert Eggers, 109 minutes, USA, 2019)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Robert Eggers The Witch was nothing short of a masterpiece, a complex cinematic meditation on feminism and coming of age using witchcraft as a metaphorical framework that is unveiled in a slow burn narrative. So I’ve been eagerly anticipating Robert Eggers’ follow-up and when it was finally unveiled that it would be starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson, I was all-in. While some will never forgive Pattinson for his wooden acting in the Twilight movies, let the record show he’s used the celebrity that successful franchise bestowed on him to elevate a string small-budget art films that tell far more challenging stories, think David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis or Claire Denis’s High Life.
Transpiring in the 1890s, The Lighthouse is the story of Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) and Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) two lighthouse keepers who have arrived on a desolate rock to man a lighthouse for four weeks. What ensues is a gorgeous fever dream — complete with mermaids, sea curses and sinister seagulls — that chronicles one man’s terrifying descent into madness. After losing his previous second, Wake is the senior to Winslow, who is learning the ropes lighthouse-keeping under the pitiless tutelage of Dafoe’s salty curmudgeon. As the weeks pass we watch Winslow slowly unravel as Wake refuses to let him man the light, keeping him busy with grunt work and housekeeping. In due time we discover that Wake doesn’t have a completely platonic relationship with the lighthouse light bulb — don’t ask — which creates a bizarre tension between the two men that almost feels like a love triangle.
The first thing that strikes you about The Lighthouse is Jarin Blaschke’s gritty cinematography, its stark high contrast black and white screams of German expressionism. Almost every frame here is a work of art. The next thing is the distinctive dialog. There’s a crude poetry to Willem Dafoe’s old-timey nautical monologues and sea shanties that Eggers culled from actual lighthouse keepers’ journals from back in the day. Lastly, there is a palpable on-screen chemistry between Dafoe and Pattinson, colored with homoerotic undertones, that dissects toxic masculinity while skewering it in the process.
The Lighthouse is a dense piece of cinema that’s hard to pin down with a simple four paragraph review, and is only complicated by the film’s overlapping tone colors and pitch-black, meme worthy humor. Like The Witch it takes, The Lighthouse takes its time as the film’s mysteries slowly unfurl, eventually revealing themselves in the film’s shocking final act. It’s not for everyone, but I found it to be one of the most enjoyable and thought-provoking films I’ve seen all year.